Sartre is Dead
In place of our usual editorial, in this
issue we publish differing responses to
Sar.tre’s death by two members of the
Sartre’s productive career was at a close
some time ago. Death formally completed
what had always been a career of incompleteness – unpublished works, projects announced
but never undertaken, radical reassessments
of previous work.
Nevertheless, the occasion has given critics the opportunity for
Sartrean irony this, since it is in death
that the individual’s life is finally and
irrevocably subsumed under le regard of the
Other. Often, the first person plural
insinuates in such tributes.
adopted as the philosopher of ‘our’ century,
‘we’ can forgive him his excesses, he who
has taught ‘us’ so much.
With no other
philosopher, perhaps, did such an unashamedly individualistic project of self-expression command such familial sentiments.
Sartre’s work, it is felt, was and remains
the testimony of a shared world of experience.. Yet for no-one else was the description ‘lifework’ so apposite, if only because
its two composite terms remained inseparable.
That infamous outpouring of words was, from
beginning to end, the textual sacralisation
of one unique and irreducible life
This paradox defined the work itself, for
its essence lay in the stubborn pursuit of
the ‘singular universal’.
Sartre’s impassioned, honest and rigorous interrogation of
his own situation sought to yield the
universal sense of all human situations.
His would be the truth for and of
Sartre called Kierkegaard the ‘privileged
witness’ of subjectivity; but he himself
sought to be the privileged witness of his
own time, making sense of it by making sense
of himself within it.
It is this which
inclines sympathetic critics to view Sartre
as both the most unique and the most representative thinker of this century.
it needs to be said that Sartre’s work not
only failed to efface the singularity of its
origins, but also reproduced individuality
in its profoundest sense. Practical solipsism anarchistic individualism and philosophicai isolation are the hallmarks of this
From the failure of Rassemblement
Democratique Revolutionnaire to his opportunistic support of the French Marxists,
Sartre’s political career is both marginal
and largely ineffectual. His greatest mistrust was always reserved for politics, and
it was precisely the intelligibility of
collective political action that his theory
What political efficaty he had
derived, ironically, from what he had most
cause to resent and mistrust – his status as
a celebrity. At worst his philosophy could
cynically be described as inspired eclecticism and ‘existentialism’, in particular, as
the popularising importation into France of
Merleau-Ponty remains the more
acute, sophisticated and original interpreter of Heidegger and Husserl.
appeal to literary commitment apart,
Sartre’s own novels and plays served no
popular cause and, for the most part, belong
to a classical literary tradition.
respect, Sartre’s somewhat clumsy appreciation of Brecht is not without significance.
Sartre’s personal style was monologic and
conjoined with both an express disdain for
philosophical exchange and an abrupt dismissal of critics. At its best, this produced
polemical prose of inspired proportions; at
worst, it infuriated by its unrepentant
When Sartre admitted error,
it was retrospective, on his own terms, and
served implicitly to confirm the correctness
of his current approach.
dialogue, fraternal cooperation and collective inquiry were all foreign to Sartre.
Significantly, ‘Sartreans’ seem united
less by their common subscription to the
letter of a theoretical text than indebtedness to the spirit of the author’s project.
That spirit was fundamentally moral. Despite
the unpublished ‘Ethics’ and despite the
assumed status of political thinker, Sartre
always remained a moraliste who vainly
sought a politics commensurate with his moral
standards. And what always fired his moral
indignation was the ethics and ethos of a
bourgeoisie who dominated the ‘backward
province’ of France – from the insufferable
conceit of the Bouville burghers in Nausea,
through the anti-communist ‘rats’ of the
1950s, to the complacent cons who believed
in elections in the 1970s~is was the
spirit of non-conformist resistance to all
forms of established authority – intellectua~
social and political. That non-conformist
spirit manifested itself in an unparalleled
Such were the bombs
thrown against established order – his words.
The uncompromising articulation of his
own situation gave Sartre’s work its merits
of sustained interrogation and obdurate,
passionate search. However, such virtues
cannot obscure the subjectivist foundations
of such writing. Honest, dispassionate and
critical self-expression is not alien to
It may well be its most
What has Sartre left us? Perhaps more than
anything else his own problem: a life seen
through its traces, an experience to be reconstituted and hung on its structural
supports, but always eventually escaping us.
It would be too easy, especially in the
present climate on the intellectual left, to
mistake the traces for the life. We could
mark his death with an assessment of his
theoretical contribution to Marxism and
radical theory generally; catalogue his
successes and mistakes; and then file him
away to be rediscovered by some future
generation of leftist academics establishing
themselves against what has rapidly become a
This would be a mistake. His production
was too great and it is simply too early to
attempt any such assessment; and even if we
confined ourselves to his philosophy, it
would defy labelling.
What we can find in
his vast output, and what I think marks him
off from other left philosophers of his
generation, is a reflection of and the
attempt to come to grips with the real conditions of existence of the ‘petit-bourgeois
intellectual’ who is also a revolutionary conditions which, with appropriate modifications for time and place, are our own.
Since the early 1940s, and I think
implicitly throughout, his work and life was
marked by the attempt to tread a very narrow
line between two frequently contradictory
On the one hand, there is something
which can best be called ‘honesty’: the
pursuit of a philosophical and literary
vision which was peculiarly his own, and
the pursuit of a more personal honesty
(although at least as far as their published
work is concerned, Simone de Beauvoir far
outdistanced him here).
On the other hand
there was the revolutionary commitment to
effective political action.
Few of us have
our own visions, so perhaps we should substitute academic careers on one side, but
we can find here something like our own
situation. We are committed to a politics
which goes beyond ideas, but also to
interests and activities, not to mention
privileges, which are all but irrelevant to
most of those with whom we must engage
politically, and which can separate us from
them. This seems to remain the case however
often we assert the necessity of revolutionary theory to revolutionary practice.
If we expect a solution, then Sartre’s
life and work must stand as a failure; if we
can recognise that there is no solution, he
can teach us something of what we have to
live with. Directly, his tortuous relationship with the Parti Communiste Francais, his
attempt to transform himself into a peoples’
intellectual, his insistence on speaking out
against threats, all these reflect, in a
more dramatic and public form, our own problems. Whatever the relationship we adopt to
the organised left, to mass movements as
they arise, to local or national repression~
we can find them documented and explored in
Whatever their failings, we can
still learn from Existentialism and Humanism,
The Communists and Peace, A Plea for
Intellectuals and the 1968 interviews.
But I think the indirect lessons are more
important, drawn from the expanse of his
work and his theoretical project itself, its
intention rather than its content.
range including novels, dramas, political
theory and journalism, literary and art
criticism, autobiography and biography, we
can find the separations and fragmentations
with which we all have to contend: not only
the division between the personal, political
and theoretical and, over his lifetime,
fragmentations within each of these.
strand of unity is the project of totalisation, the rational, political and personal
need to bring all these together.
his traces they remain separate: already he
is being remembered for his plays rather
than his novels, his novels rather than his
philosophy, his politics rather than anything else. Even in its explicit heart, the
project denies itself, reveals its own
impossibility: the useless passion of human
existence, the collapse of the revolutionary
group into manipulable seriality.
If Sartre is right in arguing that the
intellectual is defined by the movement
towards universality, and if that very
project must reveal its own impossibility,
then our personal and political conflicts
are symptoms of an unavoidable dilemma. We
cannot give up the project: that would be
to deny reason itself, to give up hope. Nor
can we confine ourselves to one fragment:
there is no more hope in those who are only
political militants than there is in those
who are only philosophers. Yet we cannot
succeed.–sirtre has left us first an
example: it is possible to continue, even
when that means documenting our failure; and
second some footholds, along different paths
and at different intervals, to which our
lives will force us to return whether we
like it or not.
That is why, finally, any
attempt at a conclusive assessment of his
work would be counterproductive.