Clive's Lives

Jean-­Paul Sartre

The nothingness at the heart of his philosophy.

The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

The Cogito never delivers anything except what we ask it to deliver … [Click here for the full quote.]— ­Jean-­Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Jean-Paul Sartre

Radiating contempt for its bourgeois liberal conformity, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) looms in the corner of this project like a genius with the evil eye. In my view, Sartre is a devil’s advocate to be despised more than the devil, because the advocate was smarter. No doubt this is a disproportionate reaction. Sartre, after all, never actually killed anybody. But he excused many who did, and most of those never actually killed anybody, either: They just gave orders for their subordinates to do so.

Sartre was a brilliant man: The first thing to say about him, although unfortunately not the last. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, he called, in his capacity as a Resistance fighter, for punishment to be vented on those among his fellow literati who had collaborated with the Nazis. The question of how much Resistance fighting he had actually done did not impede his postwar climb to prominence. As philosopher, novelist, playwright, social commentator, and political analyst, Sartre was the pre-eminent French left-wing intellectual of the Fourth Republic and beyond, reigning supreme in the Left Bank cafes with Simone de Beauvoir the queen at his side. The pair made intellectual distinction into a media story: The celebrity enjoyed now by a glamour-boy philosopher such as Bernard-Henri Lévy has its precedent in that postwar connection between serious thought and media dazzle—a Parisian microclimate that helped give France a sense of luxury at a time when food and fuel were still in short supply. After Camus died prematurely in a car crash, Sartre’s gauchiste vision was the style setter of French political thought, founding an orthodoxy that still saturates French intellectual life today and, to a certain extent, continues to set a standard of engagement for intellectual life all over the world.

A key principle in this vision is that the Communist regimes, no matter how illiberal, had serious altruistic intentions in comparison with the irredeemably self-serving capitalist West. (Academics in the capitalist West greeted this brain wave with awed approval, failing to note that their society could hardly be self-interested if it allowed them to do so—unless, that is, freedom of expression is a sly trick played by capitalism to convince the gullible that they are at liberty.) When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even when what he was exculpating was the Gulag network—whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but as an incidental blemish. This maneuver, implying a powerful ability to deny the import of a fact even after he had acknowledged it, was hard to distinguish from duplicity.

Skeptics might say that a knack for making duplicity look profound was inherent in Sartre’s style of argument. Students who tackle his creative prose in the novel sequence The Road to Freedom or the play Kean (his most convincing illustration of existentialism as a living philosophy) will find clear moments of narrative, but all clarity evaporates when it comes to the discursive prose of his avowedly philosophical works. But it should be said in fairnesss that even English philosopher Roger Scruton, otherwise a severe critic of Sartre, finds Sartre’s keystone work Being and Nothingness a substantial work; and Jean-François Revel, who took Sartre’s political philosophy apart brick by brick, still admired him as a philosopher who earned his own credentials, without depending on the university system for his prestige. But those of us unfettered by being either professional philosophers or patriotic Frenchmen can surely suggest that even Sartre’s first and most famous treatise shows all the signs of his later mummery. Where Sartre got it from is a mystery begging to be explained. It could have had something to do with his prewar period in Berlin, and especially with the influence of his admired Heidegger. In Sartre’s style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas.

The best explanation might have more to do with his personality. Perhaps he was overcompensating. It would be frivolous to suggest that Sartre’s bad eye was a factor in determining his personality; and anyway, Sartre’s physical ugliness in no way impeded his startling success with women. But it might be possible that he was compensating for a mental condition that he knew to be crippling. He might have known that he was debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered, because telling the truth was something that ordinary men did, and his urge to be extraordinary was, for him, more of a motive force than merely to see the world as it was. This perversity—and he was perverse, whether he realized it or not—made him the most conspicuous single example in the 20th century of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the opponents of civilization. Like Robespierre, he had an awful purity. He turned down the Nobel Prize. He was living proof that the devil’s advocate can be idealistic and even self-sacrificing. Minus his virtues, he would be much easier to dismiss. With them, he presents us with our most worrying reminder that the problem of amoral intelligence is not confined to the sciences.

Surely part of the answer, though, is that Sartre couldn’t do for himself as an analytical thinker what he was bound to do for himself as a creative artist—live out his bad faith. Sartre is high on the list of the ­writer-philosophers who were more writer than philosopher. Montaigne, Pascal, Lessing, Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche—it is exalted company, but Sartre earns his place as a stylist who could make the language speak. The actor lucky enough to take the title role in Sartre’s play Kean gets better things to say about existentialism than are ever said in Sartre’s formal writings on the subject. In its later life, Sartre’s play No Exit is too much praised for having been an act of political daring when it was written. Its original production was officially allowed by the German Occupation authorities, some of whom came to see it. They allowed it because they knew its appeal to liberty was camped in the air, and they came to see it because they knew they were in safe company.

The moral problems with which the play’s supposedly trapped personages wrestle are woefully abstract compared with those that were currently drenching even the proclaimed fascist sympathizers among French intellectuals in cold sweat every night. (Sartre might really have had something if he had set his play in the railroad car that took minor writers Jacques Chardonne and Marcel Jouhandeau on their 1941 trip to Germany.) As for the moral problems waiting to be faced by French intellectuals who fancied that they were resisting tyranny by assenting to its demands with sufficient reluctance, those had not yet arisen in perceptible form, and in the conspicuous cases of Sartre and Beauvoir, they were never to do so. No Exit is a play absolutely not about its time—a time when the case for humanity was being heard not behind closed doors but with the doors wide open, so that everyone could see, but only at the price of weeping tears bitter with the salt of shame. It is, however, a play of its time, and perhaps most flagrantly so because of what it ignores. In other words, the inner turmoil gets into the action somehow. Why else would these etiolated personalities be pretending ordinary life is hell, unless somewhere, in the real life outside, real personalities were encountering a hell without pretence? As a writer, in short, Sartre was unable to escape history, because his use of language could not keep it out.

As a philosopher, to escape history was Sartre’s chief concern. There was almost no salient truth about the occupation period that he was able to analyze directly at the moment when it might have mattered. When it was safe to do so, he nerved himself to say that anti-Semitism was a bad thing. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate even contains a good epigram: Armed with anti-Semitism, Sartre said, even an idiot can be a member of an elite. Though the trains had already left from Drancy—by the time he wrote the pamphlet, the Nazis were gone as well—at least his opinion was published. He slammed the stable door. But he never made a beginning on the question of how the writers and intellectuals who continued with their careers during the occupation could do so only at the cost of tacitly conniving with Nazi policies, all of which radiated from one central aim, which was the extermination of the Jews. No moral issue was ever more inescapably real; even the cost of ignoring it was directly measurable in lost lives; there could be no philosophical discussion of any subject on which that subject did not intrude.

If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behavior—and clearly he did—he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing. To the lasting bamboozlement of the civilized world, he succeeded, at least on the level of professional prestige. Few professional thinkers anywhere found it advisable to dismiss Sartre’s air of intelligence: There was too great a risk of being called unintelligent themselves. Effectivement—to re-employ a French word that was worked to death at the time—Sartre was called profound because he sounded as if he was either that or nothing, and few cared to say that they thought him nothing.

How did he work the trick? There was a hidden door. From the writer committed to transparency it might go against the grain to say so, but there is such a thing as an obscure language that contains meaning, and there is also such a thing as a meaning too subtle to be clearly expressed. The legitimate inference seems to be that an expository language pushing deep into originality might not necessarily sound readily intelligible; with the niggling corollary that a language that does not sound readily intelligible might conceivably be exploratory.

But in philosophy, the infinite regress is a sign that someone has made a mistake in logic. In ordinary life, it is a sign that someone is hiding from reality. Sartre hid. Of course he did; and if he did, anybody can, including us; although I think that if we hide in lies, the lies should not be blasphemous. Sartre blasphemed when he took upon himself, and kept for the rest of his life, battle honors that properly belonged to people who ran risks he never ran, and who died in his stead. All his other weaknesses can be comprehended and easily pardoned if not dismissed: Most of us would have shown the same frail spirit. But to get a play put on, Sartre bent his knee to the occupation authorities. For a man whose Resistance group had done nothing but meet, he was a haughty inquisitor during l’Épuration. Memories of the French Revolution were not enough to tell him that there might be something wrong with the spectacle of a philosopher sitting on a tribunal instead of standing in front of it. Sartre’s autobiography was the last thing he wanted us to know, and so his philosophy was never felt, but all a pose.