Jean-Paul Sartre is now relegated to 20th century bookshelves, somewhat like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. There is no 21st century resonance of his personality or his ideas. But for some of us who had spent the better part of the last quarter of 20th century with an interest in ideas, he seems interesting enough. Sartre typifies the French intellectual,
From top: Merleau-Ponty; Paul Nizan; Albert Camus; Jean-Paul Sartre
engaged with politics and philosophy and history and art and literature. And in Sartre's generation these different things were woven into each other but each one of them remained a separate strand. This complexity disappeared into a mighty confusion when the so-called post-modern French intellectual of the Jacques Derrida kind appeared in the late 1960s. There was one more thing with the Sartre generation. Friendship. They were friends who differed, debated, quarreled, fell out, sometimes agreed, felt a certain historical and political responsibility. It is this social engagement of the intellectual that is not to be seen now.
In "Portraits (Situations IV)", Sartre's
essays translated by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books of Calcutta in 2009 -- a lovely edition and a competently produced book -- we get to recapture some of the old battles of ideas that Sartre and his friends faced in in the 1940s and 1950s with regard to communism, Stalinism and the Cold War, all of which seem to have died a decent death with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Two pieces on Albert Camus and one each on Paul Nizan and Merleau-Ponty weave these themes together with the personal note of friendship.
The first piece on Camus in this collection is entitled "Reply To Camus" and it was written in August 1952 in Les Temps Moderne. Sartre starts it off on a dramatic note: "My dear Camus, Our friendship was not easy, but I shall miss it. If today you break it off, doubtless that means it would inevitably have ended some day. Many things brought us together, few separated us. But those few were still too many: friendship too becomes totalitarian; there has to be an agreement on everything, and those who belong to any party themselves behave like members of imaginary parties." Camus was criticised by one Jeanson in Les Tempes Modernes while reviewing Camus book. Camus hit back not only at Jeanson the reviewer but also Sartre, who was the editor. Hence, Sartre's angry reply. Camus attacked those who symptathised with the Communists though not on all counts, especially the Russian concentration camps. But he seems to have used the camps issue to bludgeon the communist sympathisers. Sartre objects to this simplification.
He wrote another piece after the death of Camus on 7 January 1960 in France-Observateur: "We had quarrelled, he and I. A quarrel is nothing -- even if you were never to see each other again: it is just another way of living together, without losing sight of each other in the narrow, little world allotted to us."And he says of the death of Camus in a car accident: "The particular scandal of this death is the way that the inhuman has overridden the order of men."
The piece on novelist Paul Nizan is an introduction to Nizan's novel, Aden, Arabie, in 1960. Nizan had died and he has been reviled by French communist party apparatchiks as one who received government funds and that he betrayed the comrades. Sartre defends his schoolmate and friend against this charge in this essay. Sartre says: "But as the son of a worker who had become a bourgeois, he wondered what he might become: bourgeois or worker? His chief concern was undoubtedly this civil war within him; as a traitor to the proletariat, Mr Nizan (Paul's father) had made his son a betraying bourgeois; this bourgeois-despite-himself would cross the line in the opposite direction: but that is not easy. When the Communist intellectuals want a bit of fun, they call themselves proletarians: 'We do manual work in our garrets.'Lacemakers, so to speak. Nizan, more clear-sighted and more demanding, saw them -- saw himself, indeed -- as petty-bourgeois who had chosen the cause of the people. That does not actually close the gap between a Marxist novelist and an unskilled worker: they can exchange smiles from either side of the intervening gulf, but if the author takes a single step, he falls in."
Nizan became a Communist Party member and a successful one at that. And then he left the party and became the enemy in the eyes of the party. Sartre had to defend his friend from this attack and show him to be the complicated bourgeois who rebelled against his bourgeois self and felt for the proletarians with the acute awareness that he cannot be one of the workers himself because he has become so bourgeois and even enjoyed being one! This belonging to a class and how it defines one's politics is openly played out in France it seems, something very hard to imagine in class-ridden Britain. There is a certain innocence when Sartre writes about being bourgeois or petty bourgeois. It is part of the historical reality and there was nothing pejorative about it.
In the piece on Merleau-Ponty,written in the special issue of Les Tempes Modernes, after Merleau-Ponty's death, Sartre traces their complex friendship, how Merleau-Ponty acted as the political editor of Les Tempes Modernes and did not want his name to be there on the mast-head, how he offered to resign when Sartre in his essay, 'What Is Literature' almost equated Nazism with Stalinism. Sartre narrates the episode: "In 1947, I published 'What is Literature' in the review. He read the first proofs and thought he had found in them a sentence which, as was the fashion at the time, equated fascism with 'Stalinism' beneath the common appellation of 'totalitarian regimes'. I was in Italy and he wrote to me immediately; I received the letter in Naples and I remember my stupefaction. It said, more or less: 'If you really reply the same yardsticks to communism and Nazism, then I beg you to accept my resignation.'"And Sartre relates how Merleau-Ponty carefully distinguished between the distorted reality of communism and communist ideals, Sartre cites Merleau's formulation: "A Communist, it will be said, has no values...He has values in spite of himself."
There came a point when Sartre and Merleau-Ponty parted ways on questions of principle and differences in perception. But their friendship survived the tenuous period that preceded the years before Merleau-Ponty's death.