Asked where he was coming from, my friend’s son replied, “From the demo against the death of Sartre.” It was April 19, 1980, and the definition fitted perfectly, for Sartre’s funeral, attended by some 50,000, could be described as the last demo of the New Left. It was posthumous in another sense. The engagement associated with Sartre–the intellectual’s or writer’s social and political commitment–had been cast aside five years earlier by the self-appointed “new philosophers”–crude in thought but skilled in propaganda–who loudly proclaimed that any attempt to alter society radically was bound to end with the gulag. Indeed, the cliché fashionable well into the eighties was that Sartre’s fellow at the highly competitive École Normale, Raymond Aron–an intelligent pillar of the Western establishment, a sort of superior Daniel Bell–had always been right, whereas son petit camarade Jean-Paul had always been wrong. But such was the pressure of propaganda that the other side merely snapped back that it was better to be wrong with Sartre than to be right with Aron.
Has the mood changed twenty years on? Six books devoted to Sartre have just been published here for the anniversary. Newspapers have been full of portraits, weeklies and monthlies replete with extracts, comments and assessments. Are these not signs, as many titles suggested, of a comeback, a resurrection? On the international scale, judging by the conferences held and books printed, Sartre has never quite been forgotten. Yet even in the narrow Parisian and political sense, one can talk only of a partial revival. Sartre is feted not because of his engagement but in spite of it. Of the books mentioned, only the smallest, that of Benoit Denis, which is devoted to literary commitment from Pascal to Sartre, does justice to the latter’s contribution to the struggles of the intellectuals. Philippe Petit, who seems sympathetic to la cause de Sartre, writes essentially about that extraordinary monument of literary criticism, The Family Idiot, Sartre’s 2,988-page unfinished analytical portrait of Flaubert. And Olivier Wickers elegantly muses on various aspects of this literary figure. But three others start from the premise that Aron was always right. Indeed, since they describe Sartre as Stalin’s stooge and a servant of totalitarianism, we shall have to return to the heart of the matter. But first, why so much talk about the man at all?
Younger people cannot remember the impact, the extraordinary charisma, of this far from handsome little man with a lazy eye. I am not referring here to the postwar craze, when tourists invaded the caves and cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in search of existentialists and innumerable youngsters took as their model the “free couple” of Jean-Paul and Simone (known as le castor, French for beaver, of which her name de Beauvoir was apparently a reminder). No, I am talking about the crucial part performed by Sartre for at least three decades after the war in the cultural and political battles on the international stage, about his role as the chief critic of the Western world (in retrospect, and considering the importance of The Second Sex, one should probably talk of the influence of the couple).
Prolific and many-sided are ridiculous euphemisms when applied to Sartre. We know from The Words that he acquired in childhood the habit of writing for six to seven hours a day, and much more (with the help of all sorts of drugs) when the issue fascinated him or the timetable required it. He wrote some philosophy with literary elegance and put philosophical ideas into his novels. But he was also a playwright, a major literary critic, a screenwriter and a cultural and political essayist, not to mention the innumerable petitions he wrote or signed whenever he thought injustice was involved. He turned down all the honors bestowed by the establishment, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. Herbert Marcuse once called him “the conscience of the world.”