Jean-Paul Sartre: the supernova of the far Left

On the 50th anniversary of the protests of May 1968 in Paris, it is time to reassess the ageing Marxist intellectual whom the students idolised

Robert O'Brien

Sartre in 1968, handing out copies of “La Cause du Peuple”, the newspaper of the Gauche Prolétarienne. Simone de Beauvoir is on the right (© ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

President Emanuel Macron has been planning how best to commemorate les évènements of May 1968. One hears that, without being explicitly pro (like François Hollande) or anti (like Nicolas Sarkozy), he will reflect upon the loss of utopian ideals in politics. Will he give us some examples, en bonne foi? Will he praise the “utopian ideals” of the angry students, workers and writers of soixante-huit?

Seizing the moment in that year, once more, was the man who had held a dominant position in public intellectual life for 30 years — Jean-Paul Sartre, then 63. Although the structuralists were then eclipsing him in Paris, and he was deeply immersed in his vast (and, in its scholarly eccentricity, vastly bourgeois) biography of Flaubert, he was quick to announce his support for the militant students who, according to their leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “had all read Sartre” whereas only “some had read Marx”.

Another leader, Alain Geismar, said that his relationship with Sartre had always been passionate: he and a friend had a two-hour meeting with Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre and others such as Lacan and Henri Lefebre then published a statement in Le Monde on May 10, the night before the barricades went up: “The solidarity we are here pledging to all the student movements in the world . . . is, above all, our answer to all the lies with which all the institutions and political organisations (with hardly any exceptions) and all the organs of the press and the rest of the media . . . have been trying to alter said movements and to pervert them.”

Sartre then appeared on Radio Luxembourg supporting the students and accusing his own generation of “cowardice, sluggishness and servility . . . Violence is the only thing remaining to the students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system and who do not want to enter into it.” A few days later he met Cohn-Bendit and his encouraging words were reported in Le Nouvel Observateur; then he attacked his old friend Raymond Aron for his moderation and called for radical change in the university system. On May 20 thousands invaded the occupied Sorbonne to hear him address a huge student meeting.

At this stage of his life Sartre was a kind of verbally exploding star: he didn’t see a contradiction between his literary and political projects, since his never-finished work on Flaubert, consisting of 3,000 pages of Freudian-Marxist deconstruction, aimed to explain how and why its subject was hopelessly bourgeois and disengaged, and why his fine style was poor compensation for the weakness of being a passive slave of the “imaginaire”. Maoist groups sought his protection and within three years Sartre had become editor-in-chief of three of their newspapers, La Cause du Peuple, Tout, and Liberation. The first of these carried the names of Sartre and de Beauvoir at the foot of every page.

How did he get to this far-out point? By any reckoning, Sartre was a phenomenon — creator of French existentialism, most fluent of political and cultural commentators, and winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature (which he attempted to decline). In 1980, 50,000 people paid tribute at his funeral, because, as James Wood puts it, “Fired by a passion for freedom and justice, loved and hated in his own day, Sartre [stood] as the authentic modern successor to Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.” Even de Gaulle, when Sartre aligned himself against the Algerian conflict in 1960, had said, generously, “You don’t imprison Voltaire.”

So, though hated and even threatened by many, he was almost untouchable in the period when he paid court to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Yet the writers mentioned were all surely greater than him: his novels are bleak, his plays mostly about ideas and symbolic acts of violence, his philosophy often obscure and comfortless, and his politics extreme. How could Sartre be their successor?

One answer is that France had suffered a massive collapse in confidence. For all the turbulence of history, previous generations did not have to cope with the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the Nazi occupation. Since France was suffering an existential crisis, uncertain of its future in a violent continent and an apparently godless universe, an authentic French existentialist was perhaps what it required. Sartre voiced aspects of the national conscience when everything had been tainted. His search for radical values spoke to many in a nation racked by shame and acute crises of faith.

Another is that he was indisputably brilliant. His output was prodigious and diverse, if uneven: most of his best work pre-dated 1950, and if he had died then he would not have been seen as a firebrand. In his thirties he was so apolitical that he said nothing about the Spanish Civil War. His reputation, as a significant rather than a great writer, should rest mainly on his novels and plays, particularly in my view the former. They are semi-autobiographical, honest and well-observed, dramatise many issues effectively, and depict their times sharply and vividly. Yet he cut short his career as a published novelist after only 12 years to devote himself to gauchisme.

Nausea, the first (1938), is one of the few good philosophical novels. It records in diary form, with sardonic wit, the drab, friendless life of Sartre’s alter ego, Roquentin, a scholar in a northern town. Among many memorable passages, there is one in which Roquentin stares at some tree roots until he is overwhelmed by the superfluity, the “contingency” and the “dismal, sickly” abundance of the natural life around him. (Sartre had been experimenting with drugs, which may be connected to this queasy vision.) Though the novel holds the spiritual kernel of Sartrean existentialism, and has much to say to the spiritually alienated, or the unbelieving but thoughtful young, it doesn’t reward re-reading as many more mature classics do — entirely introverted, it has a repetitive negative strain, and lacks the imaginative force of, say, Kafka (who is an influence).

In The Age of Reason (1945), first novel in his unfinished tetralogy The Roads to Freedom, the Sartrean alter ego has turned into Mathieu — teaching philosophy, like Sartre, at a lycée in 1938. He lives a bohemian life in the company of his pregnant mistress, a favoured student, a friend who becomes a Communist, and others. He wanders about Paris for two days, trying to find the money to pay for his mistress’s abortion, both indulging and despising himself. The novel is realistic, anti-romantic, rather relishes the sordid, and is built around the Sartrean themes of commitment — to people, careers and politics, in all of which Mathieu is patently failing — and freedom, which Mathieu does not know how to achieve. Not he, but the homosexual Daniel emerges as an unexpected saviour of the unborn child at the end.

The “age” of the ironic title is that at which Mathieu should, according to his bourgeois brother, be achieving maturity. Mathieu wants to “retain his freedom”, but Jacques retorts: “You condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself.” He despises his country — “tous les Français sont des salauds” — and his lack of warmth points to one of Sartre’s failings. But, like his creator, he is sociable, a stimulating companion.

These two honest, engaging but almost nihilistic novels — studies in failure in responsibility, achievement and love — suggest Sartre’s unachieved potential. His next, The Reprieve, is set at the end of September 1938 when Chamberlain, who appears briefly, was in Munich. The influence of Dos Passos lies behind the narrative collage technique (“simultaneity”), in which the unconnected threads, involving many characters across  Europe, are switched in mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence. This jolting, disconcerting method demands concentration, but conveys effectively the confusion, nightmarish anxiety, and unreadiness of France as war approaches: all conviction is evaporating.

The third volume, Iron in the Soul, takes Mathieu and his new comrades-in-arms on to the fall of France. It should be read for its vivid dramatisation of the prevalent mood of shame and futility, and the ideological polarisation of the time. Mathieu is called up, but his unit is soon hanging about waiting for capture. Their officers desert them; Mathieu at last commits himself to a reckless act of resistance, in which “he was cleansed. He was free.” In Part Two, set in a makeshift Stalag holding 20,000 prisoners, a close friendship develops between  a Communist and a sympathiser, Schneider. In effect, Sartre kills off the drifting Mathieu to build a second alter ego in Schneider. The comradeship reflects that found by Sartre in the Stalag where he was a prisoner until his release on medical grounds, and it offers a more positive view of relationships than the rest of his work, in which many of them are fraught or half-hearted. The novel here becomes unequivocally political, with gauchistes competing with priests and Pétainistes for the men’s allegiance.

The crucial turn in Sartre’s career occurs as he completes this novel and then tries unsuccessfully in the 1950s to complete the tetralogy. There was a battle inside him not only between the literary and the political, but between the novelist and the playwright; and he gave so much of his energy to journalism (above all to the review Les Temps Modernes) and to playwriting that he did not publish Iron in the Soul until 1949. Whereas his newfound political conviction, built on his postwar study of Marx, fed naturally into the rhetoric of his playwriting, it hobbled his more subtle style as novelist. What emerged was a Marxist crusader — a Sartre, one might say, Resartus.

He therefore abandoned the intractable problem of an Occupation novel: “I can’t express the ambiguities of our period in this story,” he wrote of his aborted novel. These ambiguities were within and without him: just as he attacked collaborationists, some accused him of moral compromise both during and after the Occupation. The historian Gilbert Joseph, in Une si douce occupation, showed that he hardly put himself in danger in Paris, and that therefore the Resistance mantle he later assumed was undeserved (was there even implicit collaboration?). An honest novel about the Occupation would have been worth more to literary posterity than half of his postwar writings put together, but could he write it if he himself was guilty of the mauvaise foi for which he attacked others? Instead, he turned away from la vie interieure and the realistic characterisation of his novels to the more symbolic world of his plays, with their remote settings and improbable circumstances.

He had already written two of his best plays under the occupation. Les Mouches (The Flies), based on Electra, made eloquent use of Greek myth in exploring again the idea of freedom. Recalling the moment of his decision to kill his mother and Aegisthus, Orestes says: “Suddenly freedom swooped down upon me and took hold of me; nature jumped back. And there was nothing left in heaven, neither Good nor Evil, and nobody could give me orders.” This is the freedom to make a hard decision (“Never have we been so free,” said Sartre, using this paradoxical meaning, of the Occupation). After the inevitable murder, he tells Jupiter that man is free, then simply leaves, as if seeing no political way forward. “Mouches”, incidentally, was the word used in Paris for informers.

Sartre’s most famous play, No exit (or In Camera), contains the line “l’enfer, c’est les autres”, for in this bourgeois hell, free of physical torment, the three main characters, articulate and sinful, are doomed to torment each other by their relentlessly wearying obsessions, without hope of any reprieve (at the time, “les autres” often meant the Germans). This grim, witty chamber piece has lasted pretty well, though it is cynical and slight — Sartre invested far more emotional energy in his novels than his plays.

Les Mains Sales (1948) is about Communism, taking an anti-Party line because Sartre was repelled by the vicious in-fighting on the extreme Left: its hero — Hugo, a member of the Party in Eastern Europe — is ordered to kill a Party leader (Hoedere) who advocates compromise. Hugo admires Hoedere and disobeys the order, only to kill him out of jealousy because his wife is attracted to him. Despite this, he falls foul of the Party’s ruthless leaders over the presentation of the murder. Sartre suggests that such violent decisions come from unforgivably crude thinking. Vilified by Communists (which dismayed Sartre though he never joined the Party), the play’s great success proves how well he could engage his public in political issues. But it does not transcend the period.

Lucifer and the Good Lord (1951), a forceful metaphysical drama set in the German Peasants’ War, centres on an outstanding commander, Goetz (based on Goetz von Berlichingen), who espouses evil for its own sake before being persuaded to switch to an equally unbending cult of good. His peasants turn against him in the end because they want a leader to fight for their wider cause, and in due course he is persuaded to agree. Goodness is not enough even if the sheltered community is happy. The characterisation suffers from its Brechtian nature; and it can hardly be an accident that its dialectical structure coincides with Sartre’s decision to become a fellow-traveller, and to defend the Soviet Union until 1956.

There were a few intriguing plays still to come, one being The Condemned of Altona, set in the house of a German tycoon in 1958, and centred on his troubled son Frantz who has lived self-imprisoned upstairs since his return from the Eastern Front, convinced that Germany is ruined. Later we discover that, despite his idealism, he had authorised the use of torture on prisoners. The play explores the unpredictable consequences of decisions taken under stress — here both father and son are guilty. Rather overladen with complications such as incest and madness, it makes use of absurdist elements: Frantz addresses an imagined jury of crabs, to whom he says about the family business, “Evil, your Lordships, was the only material we had.” 

By 1959 Sartre had concluded, exactly like a bourgeois individualist undergoing Communist re-education, that his literary writing was “a sign of weakness”; but there was one good book to come — Les Mots, his anti-Proustian autobiography covering his childhood with his grandparents after the early death of his father. His doting mother, forced back into the position of unmarried daughter, shared her bedroom with him for years. He hates fathers, he pronounces, “who bestraddle their sons all their life long . . . I have no Superego.” He emerged with an indestructible confidence, an adventurous imagination and a bookish view of reality:  “From [books] came the idealism which it took me thirty years to shake off.” When he did shake it off, he disloyally rejected the idea of the family altogether: “I loathed my childhood,” he writes, appearing, after what we have read, disingenuous. But he often rejected what he had been most attached to, and his loathing is for everything bourgeois.

Sartre did not achieve greatness. He left many projects incomplete, thanks to his restless desire for new enterprises, new ideas and new versions of himself. He overreached himself, therefore, and his later politics, philosophy and biography (in which he conjoined Marxism and psychoanalysis) are a tangled garden rank with weeds. At the root of all lies a complex and refractory psyche: there is not only the intellectual and emotional restlessness, the inverted egotism, and the dogmatism, but also the abhorrence of his upbringing and so much else. The rejection of his family has parallels in the way he treated friends such as the more humanistic Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, and in his selfish and manipulative relations with women. Underneath it lies a persistent element of self-disgust which unites with a disgust at France to produce a raging desire for radical change in everything. Significantly, despite years of effort, he could no more complete his existentialist ethics than The Roads to Freedom: this second failure left his philosophy fatally flawed.

In 1961 he wrote, out of his anger at French brutality in Algeria, “Il faut tuer . . . to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, supprimer en meme temps un opprimeur et un opprimé.” Such utterances link him to extremists, but are completely at odds with the reader’s relationship with the novelist of the 1940s. Yet he had been drawn to actes gratuits when young, and eventually sacrificed much of his literary talent to his urge to outrage authority. Actes gratuits by definition make little sense; and the more one reads of or about Sartre, the less he coheres as a writer, or seems truly admirable as a man. Probably he never really wanted to attain the “age of reason”, or to become wise. If he had finished a good novel on occupied France, and followed it up, he would have been a greater writer. In other words, it is a pity that he didn’t abandon his incoherent “utopian ideals” for more realistic artistic ones.

A telling moment in his career happened in Moscow in 1966, when a writer whose greatness lies partly in his bravely unflinching honesty, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, refused to meet the lesser French writer who had gradually become content to manipulate the truth for his own ends. The Russian said that he did so because Sartre had said that Mikhail Sholokhov — Stalin’s favourite novelist and “the hangman” to Solzhenitsyn — deserved the 1965 Nobel Prize.

For all that, Sartre’s creative achievement still impresses. Last December, when the French — not in mere thousands but in hundreds of thousands — turned out for the funeral of the singer Johnny Halliday, whom Macron declared “a national hero”, we were given a surreal image of contemporary French culture. Would any writer’s funeral fill a boulevard with mourners now in the way that Sartre’s did?

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