Monday, April 17, 2006

Supporting Sartre against some French

A French friend writes: "Was Orwell right about Sartre ? I think so, if we're speaking of the same thing... I vomit Sartre, Orwell was true to hate him."

I replied:

Don't be silly and melodramatic - even if you are French. He certainly doesn't deserve hate.

FF: "I think, his communism was like a varnish on a revoltingly bourgeois code of conduct and general attitude in life. I admire Orwell a lot for his honesty and his truthfulness (is it a correct word to use there?) and his fantastic literary qualities. I would give all Sartre writings for one book by O."

Sartre was sincere in his fight for freedom for others, especially the oppressed; more so as he got older, rather than becoming more right-wing, as so often happens. In this he was quite similar to Orwell. Had he been living now he would have been supporting the students against the CPE and the general erosion of workeres' rights in the name of capitalist "flexibility" (it sounds so innocent - reminds one of ballet dancers).

He may have made mistakes, we all do, but fundamentally he was right about capitalism and western imperialism and had few illusions about the Soviet Union. He just felt the Right could be relied on to constantly criticise it, there was no need for the Left to focus on the SU, which it was often supporting liberation struggles abroad. I used to show students a video of an ex CIA man who'd done propaganda for the CIA in Africa, till he couldn't stand the lying any more. He said: "If you wanted to get rid of a dictator you couldn't come to us [they were US clients and supporters], you COULD go to the Soviets". They could also go to the Cubans, who sent lots of fighters to Angola, where he was working. He wrote propaganda smearing the Cubans, e.g. claiming that they had raped nuns. But he said that it was a lie, though many Western journalists used it; in fact the Cubans were acting very well and he respected them.

It's not even true Sartre was a bad writer, cf.:

"What is not remembered about Sartre is that he was one of the great polemicists of our time and wrote best when he was personally angry."

(The following is from the same source) "Quotes from Sartre and Camus:"

'I offer below a few enjoyable quotes from Sartre's "Reply to Camus", which in French reads with the voyeuristic thrill of observing a distant intimacy, like hearing your best friends breaking up in the next room. Sartre constantly addresses Camus as "you, you, you,..." as if it were his version of "J'Accuse." These quotes are "fun" and the reader will get a good flavor of Sartre's side of the argument.

Sartre's "Reply to Albert Camus" is a polemic worth reading if only for its rhetoric of energizing invective.

Sartre tells us that Camus is claiming to be tired of the fight. Sartre replies:

"[I]f I were tired it seems to me that I would feel some shame in saying so There are so many who are wearier. If we are tired, Camus, then let us rest, since we have the means to do so. But let us not hope to shake the world by having it examine our fatigue."

"[T]he only way of helping the enslaved out there is to take sides with those who are here."

Sartre speaks of Camus' relation to history and to Camus secondary relation to his own personality "outside of history", as if Sartre could perform an existential psychoanalysis on Camus, in a way he would later write about Baudelaire, Jean Genet, and Flaubert.

"Your personality, alive and authentic as long as it was nourished by the event, became a mirage. In 1944, it was the future. In 1952, it is the past, and what seems to you the most intolerable injustice, is that all this is inflicted upon you from the outside, and without your having changed. ... Only memories are left for you, and a language which grows more and more abstract. Only half of you lives among us, and you are tempted to withdraw from us altogether, to retreat into some solitude where you can again find the drama which should have been that of man, and which is not even your own any more...."

Sartre continues:

"Just like the little girl who tries the water with her toe, while asking, "Is it hot?" you view history with distrust, you dabble a toe which you pull out very quickly and you ask, "Has it a meaning?" ... And I suppose that if I believed, with you, that History is a pool of filth and blood, I would do as you and look twice before diving in. But suppose that I am in it already, suppose that, from my point of view, even your sulking is proof of your historicity. Suppose one were to reply to you, like Marx,: "History does nothing... It is real and living man who does everything. History is only the activity of man pursuing his own ends.... It is only within historical action that the understanding of history is given. Does history have a meaning? Has it an objective? For me, these are questions which have no meaning. Because History, apart from the man who makes it, is only an abstract and static concept, of which it can neither be said that it has an objective, nor that it has not. And the problem is not to know its objective but to give it one."

With this invective, Sartre could carry the reader with him. What is not remembered about Sartre is that he was one of the great polemicists of our time and wrote best when he was personally angry. Thus the young intellectuals of the time were more likely to read Sartre's side of this argument rather than Camus' side. It was only later, when reacting against Sartre's supposed "communism," his commitment to fighting for the oppressed even if the oppressed used violence, that Camus' clear eyed anti-Stalinism was used as a bludgeon against Sartre's wrestle with the French Communist Party. Sartre could be naive. He could cheer any and all anti-colonial movements on the one hand and cheer Israel as an exemplar of overcoming oppression on the other. But simple ignorance of the history of the time usually prevents most people from understanding the "argument" between Sartre and Camus.

In the end, when Camus died, Sartre showed his grudging, and admiring respect for Camus. The following is a quote from the obituary Sartre wrote for Camus:

"He [Camus] represented in this century, and against History, the present heir of that long line of moralists whose works perhaps constitute what is most original in French letters. His stubborn humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged a dubious battle against events of these times. But inversely, through the obstinacy of his refusals, he reaffirmed the existence of moral fact within the heart of our era and against the Machiavellians, against the golden calf of realism." '


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