The year 2005 in France was a “Sartre Year,” the celebrated existentialist’s centenary. In Paris, bookstores were flooded with commemorative publications. Almost every newspaper and journal set aside space for a copious special issue on his work. The new, ultramodern Bibliothèque Nationale mounted a slick multimedia exhibition on Sartre’s life and times featuring salient memorabilia as well as rare video clips from his plays. The obligatory audio CDs of long-forgotten interviews appeared, strategically placed near the cash registers as a tempting impulse purchase for diehards and aficionados. And predictably, in France and abroad, there were countless long-winded academic conferences devoted to his work.
Yet paradoxically, no one seemed to know what to say. On the one hand, no one dominated the landscape of twentieth-century French intellectual life like Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, no one came close. But therein lay the main problem. After all, with the exception of poetry, Sartre excelled at every literary form imaginable. He wrote philosophical treatises, novels, short stories, essays, plays, biographies and political manifestoes. Many of them are still read and discussed today. In an age of mind-numbing specialization, Sartre was a welcome anachronism, a veritable Renaissance man. Moreover, after the war he inherited the coveted mantle of the engaged intellectual, a venerable French tradition dating back to the likes of Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. In 1960, by signing the “Manifesto of the 121″ protesting the brutal war in Algeria and urging French troops to desert, Sartre openly flouted French political authority. When President Charles de Gaulle was urged by his advisers to summarily place the gadfly philosopher under arrest, he responded emphatically: “One does not arrest Voltaire!”
How, then, might one go about commemorating Sartre, the quintessential polymath, a figure who, uncannily, excelled at virtually every endeavor he undertook? Who, in fact, is truly qualified to do justice to his manifold achievements and multifaceted oeuvre? When Sartre was alive, at least one could address each successive book, treatise or article serially, as they appeared. His death has deprived us of this rule of thumb. The possibilities for evaluation are dizzying and boundless.
But there is another reason the Sartre centennial seemed so deflating. Among intellectuals in today’s tepid political climate, Sartre’s concept of engagement has become a source of bad conscience. In many ways, he was what we are not–and what we, realistically speaking, can no longer be. Of course, Sartre committed egregious errors in political judgment. As late as 1973 he could still claim that the reason the French Revolution failed was that the Jacobins refused to kill enough people. Shortly thereafter, among French writers and opinion leaders, the so-called anti-totalitarian moment took hold. “Dissidence” became the new intellectual watchword. Sartre’s brand of political militancy went rapidly out of fashion. For a younger generation that had bid an unsentimental adieu to the temptations and delusions of “leftism,” Sartre represented the Marxist superego that had to be destroyed so that French liberalism could live. Lately, French intellectuals have recoiled in horror at neoliberalism’s injustices. Ironically, they have no one but themselves to blame.
This year in France is a “Levinas Year.” The French philosopher was born in Lithuania in 1906 and died in 1995, just a few weeks short of his ninetieth birthday. There is something perversely appropriate about the commemorative sequence. In many respects Emmanuel Levinas was the anti-Sartre. Like the author of Being and Nothingness, he was enamored of German philosophy. And like Sartre, Levinas viewed himself as an heir to the phenomenological method conceived by Edmund Husserl and consummated by Martin Heidegger. But that’s more or less where the similarities end. It would not be an exaggeration to describe Levinas’s entire philosophical endeavor as a machine de guerre directed against Sartrean existential humanism. With Sartre, it is the “For-Itself,” or consciousness, that constitutes philosophy’s Archimedean vantage point. For Levinas, conversely, it is the “Other,” l’Autrui, in all its uncanny metaphysical strangeness.