Jean-Paul Sartre: the far side of despair

First published on 30 June 1956, a profile of the philosopher and the communist dilemma.

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In our age, there is one besetting moral problem: what attitude to adopt towards Communism. There is, therefore, a unique and universal significance in the ratiocinations of a man whose formidable intellectual energy has been devoted exclusively to its solution. Jean-Paul Sartre is a playwright of genius, an incisive pamphleteer and controversialist, a writer of ideological novels, a schematic philosopher, an anti-Freudian psychologist, a brilliant teacher and editor, and a professional Left Bank mandarin. But through each and all of these activities runs a unifying thread: the search for an intellectual reconciliation with the dominant material and political force of our times. Nobody else has made the attempt in such a systematic and determined manner, has been so ruthless in eliminating extraneous considerations. The Koestlers and Silones have surrendered to rigid moral imperatives, the Kanapas and Aragons have embraced dogmatism. But Sartre, with his fanatical—almost irrational—belief in reason, has marched doggedly on into the dark tunnel.

Somewhere within the mind of this dwarf-like sage, behind the thick spectacles, the angry eyes, the fleshy facial mask with its wide and sensual mouth, the decisive intellectual battle of our century is being fought in microcosm.

Yet, despite the single-mindedness of Sartre’s aim and the logical symmetry of his intellectual development, no great thinker has been more misunderstood and provoked such violent and conflicting reactions. Sartre has been denounced as “unfathomably obscure” (Raymond Aron) and as
“a deliberate vulgariser” (Merleau-Ponty). L’Être et le Néant was once called “the most difficult philosophical work ever written”; yet L’Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme has sold more copies (150,000) than any other volume of modern philosophy. The Vatican has placed his works on the Index; yet Gabriel Marcel, himself a militant Catholic, regarded him as the greatest of French thinkers. The State Department found his novels subversive; but Les Mains Sales was the most effective counter-revolutionary play of the entire cold war. Sartre has been vilified by the Communists in Paris and ­fêted by them in Vienna. No great philosopher ever had fewer disciples; but no other could claim the intellectual conquest of an entire generation.

Amid the bitter hatreds and controversies of which Sartre has been the centre, his principal objective—and the logical concentration with which he has pursued it—has tended to become obscured. Around the man has grown a myth; and around the myth, foggy, concentric rings of intellectual prejudice. When we strip the layers, however, we find that increasingly rare—indeed, today, unique—phenomenon: a complete philosophical system, an interlocking chain of speculation which unites truth, literature and politics in one gigantic equation.

In the late Thirties, Sartre was a young, under-paid, over-educated philosophy teacher in a smart Paris school, a member—and a typical one—of the most discontented, numerically inflated and socially dangerous group in the world: the French bourgeois intellectuals. He had studied Heidegger and Kierkegaard in Germany; he taught Descartes in France. Like all intellectuals, he asked himself the question: had his knowledge any relevance to the problems of his day? The Fascists were at the gates of Madrid; what was he supposed to do about it? Why had Blum failed? Did it matter that Stalin had seen fit to murder the Old Guard of the Bolsheviks? Why was capitalism in ruins, Hitler triumphant, the democracies afraid?

It is typical of Sartre that he began his search for the answers to these problems by reformulating them at an abstract level. La Nausée (1938), his first major work, is an imaginative inquiry into the problems of existence. Roquentin, its autobiographical and solitary hero, discovers that the bourgeois world in which he lives is senseless and incoherent. His past no longer exists, his future is unknown, his present unrelated; life has no pattern. Through Roquentin’s introspective reveries, Sartre presents his fundamental metaphysical image: a loathing for the incompleteness of existence in the world as he finds it, a longing for completeness which is both intelligible and creative. If Kafka’s The Trial epitomises the nightmare of the ordinary man in a hostile and incomprehensible world, La Nausée is the nightmare of the philosopher, in which physical fear is replaced by intellectual disgust.

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Under the impact of the war, ­Sartre’s view of existence acquired firmer outline and greater depth. By 1943 he had completed, in L’Être et le Néant, a full exposition of his Existentialist philosophy, which concluded his exploration of the problem at an abstract level. In it, he succeeded in isolating the fundamental dilemma. Like Wittgenstein, he bluntly denied the existence of value (“In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value”), and concluded that meaning and purpose do not reside as objective facts in the world of things. Man’s sense of value—which he defined as essentially a sense of incompleteness—could never, therefore, be satisfied, and value itself—stable, lived totality—could never be achieved. Yet man is a creature who requires value, “a being who aspires to be God”. Despite the impossibility of his task, he continues to pursue his desire for completeness. Hence his agony, because his life is a vain quest: “L’Homme est une passion inutile.” Could the dilemma be solved, Sartre asked. And, if so, how? By self-destruction? By social organisation? Was there an intellectual Third Force between the extremes of resignation and despair?

Inevitably, Sartre was intellectually drawn into the world, and into its highest organisational manifestation: politics. In his plays and, above all, in his long novel-cycle, Les Chemins de la Liberté, he began to reformulate his problem at a concrete level. In abstract terms, he had calculated that the dilemma was insoluble, and that a Third Force was not viable. As the post-war years unfolded, he saw his calculations—like Einstein’s—proved correct by empirical observation. The world polarised into the capitalist and Communist extremes. His own political group proved a noisy failure. The Socialists were prised apart from the Communists and imprisoned on the right. Sartre could not accept the intellectual limitations of Communism: “Marxist doctrine,” he wrote, “has been withering away; for want of internal controversy it has been degraded to a stupid determinism.” Yet neither could he accept the world as he found it. What, then, was he to do? Already, by 1948, when he wrote What Is Literature?, he was conscious of the impotence and isolation of his own position. “We bourgeois,” he wrote, “who have broken with our class but who remain bourgeois in our moral values, separated from the proletariat by the Communist screen, remain up in the air; our good will serves no one, not even ourselves . . . we are writing against the current.”

As the cold war progressed, Sartre found his position more and more intolerable. He slowly came round to the view that the Communist Party, despite its bad faith and intellectual sterility, was the objective personification of the workers, and this led him to the agonising conclusion, which he puts into the mouth of one of his characters: “If the party is right, I am more lonely than a madman; if the party is wrong, the world is done for.” Could he remain intellectually neutral? And, if so, for how long? By 1952, when the cold war seemed to be moving irresistibly towards the ultimate catastrophe, Sartre had decided to take sides. After all, he reasoned, in Marxism, as in Existentialism, the search for truth in action is the central, reconciling feature. The Marxist vision of the world is completeness; the system it has created is evil only in so far as it is fallible. If we presuppose that the system is perfectible, any of its aspects to which we object—for non-philosophical reasons, for instance—can simply be dismissed as imperfections. By this time, Sartre was willing to make the decisive presupposition. His conversion was a piece of philosophical legerdemain—a case of the intellectual end justifying the intellectual means. But it brought his mind four-square with his moral conscience, because it satisfied his basic moral compulsion to be at one with the working class.

Even so, Sartre took sides in a characteristically complicated manner. He refused to join the party: on his own premises, he could not organically ally himself with a system which demanded, of necessity, absolute mental discipline and which, though perfectible, was not yet perfect. But, at the same time, he accepted the consequences of his choice in the spirit in which he had made it. Of all the fellow-travellers, he became the most impeccable. He repudiated his anti-Communist writings and disowned a new production of Les Mains Sales. His latest play, Nekrassov, is the pure, strong milk of Communist satire: the little bits of Existentialism which refused to fit into the mould were pummelled either into Marxism or out of sight.

His slavish orthodoxy, in fact, has led him into grave embarrassments. A philosophical certainty made him join forces with the Communists; but a geographical accident placed him under the intellectual suzerainty of the French Communist Party. He thus became a spokesman of the party which, above and beyond all the rest, has always been, and remains, the most Stalinist. When, therefore, the 20th Party Congress in Moscow signalised the liberating event for which Sartre, along with so many others, had waited for so long, he was placed in an impossible quandary. He, of all people, could not observe the surly silence of L’Humanité. But if he chose to comment, he would inevitably be forced to acclaim the news from Moscow in terms which could objectively be construed as criticism of his local hierarchs. His position was made even more difficult by the fact that a leading Communist intellectual, Pierre Hervé, had chosen to jump the gun and had been promptly expelled for his pains. Sartre should, from an intellectual—even from a doctrinal—point of view, have applauded Hervé’s gesture. But his position as a French fellow-traveller—and therefore as a faithful ally of the top brass of the French CP—made such a move, from a political point of view, impossible. Nevertheless, everyone expected Sartre to comment on Hervé’s book, and comment he dutifully did, struggling manfully to reconcile the irreconcilable. It was not a very happy performance, and in the weeks that have followed, the mandarins of the non-Communist Left have used Sartre as an easy target for some intellectual firing-practice. “Sartre,” one of them commented, “is now merely a figure of fun.”

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Their contempt, even their pity, is understandable. For Sartre made his choice between two irreconcilable systems just before the 20th Congress made that kind of choice obsolete. Convinced that the march towards Communism could not be halted, Sartre set out to guide other intellectuals who, he believed, must follow him in seeking a reconciliation between their philosophical beliefs and the harsher realities of life under Stalin-style Communism. Rationalising his own commitment, his own misjudgment, he went over to the Communists because he thought, as Oreste remarks in Les Mouches, that “it is on the far side of despair that life begins”. Here lies the tragedy of his choice. In the Communist countries, the intellectuals are now seeking the road back from the far side of despair, and of all living thinkers none is so well qualified by intellect, and sympathy, to aid them as Jean-Paul Sartre. Unhappily he too has to find his way back. 

This article appears in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution