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Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates, by John Gerassi, 2009, Yale.

Central to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism is the concept of Bad Faith, the idea that humans avoid taking responsibility for their actions by pretending they have no choice in how they behave. This can manifest itself in a range of behaviours, such as making excuses for misdemeanours by blaming their genes, their upbringing, their parents, their gender, by finding all sorts of extenuating circumstances that shift the cause for their actions away from themselves. What these behaviours all have in common is that each constitutes an attempt to turn subject into object, to deny that the source of the action in question lies in the free choice of the individual by making the individual itself nothing more than an object at the mercy of forces outside of its own control. Sartre spends many many pages of his masterpiece Being and Nothingness trying to explain why humans should want to adopt such a position and drawing out the ontological pre-requisites for such an attitude to even be possible.

Despite the intimidating jargon taken from phenomenology and Hegel, as well as a few neologisms of Sartre’s own thrown into the mix, Being and Nothingness is not an impossible work to understand, and despite the willful misunderstandings that Sartre’s work has received at the hands of certain analytic philosophers (and much lesser lights, such as Clive James’s dismissive ignorance), existentialism is not a difficult philosophy to grasp. If you can understand why an individual’s subjective experience is itself proof of free will, you can fairly quickly disentangle the intricacies of Sartre’s early thought.

Sartre attempted to derive an ethical theory on the basis of the ontology outlined in his book. He argued in a lecture, published in English as Existentialism and Humanism, that to adopt the attitude of Bad Faith was in itself morally wrong since to do so is to deny human freedom, and this is to deny the very essence of what it is to be human. To be human is to be free, and to deny that is to deny our own humanity. In the series of interviews with John Gerassi that make up Talking with Sartre, we see this philosophy in action. Sartre attempted in his own life to be totally transparent, to hide nothing, to deny nothing, to make no excuses for himself. Before this sounds like a bad plot for a movie starring Ricky Gervais, let me add that transparency does not mean being rude or feeling obliged to express every single thought one has regardless of how they affect others. What it does mean is to be honest with oneself and with others about oneself, so that there is no privacy, nothing hidden, no deceit or attempt to create an impression in the minds of others that is different from who you actually are.

In conversation the impact can be quite brutal, particularly if you aren’t ready for it. These are not interviews in which Gerassi comes to his subject with a sense of awe or deference. It helped, no doubt, that Gerassi’s parents were part of Sartre and Beauvoir’s circle (Gerassi’s father, Fernando, was a painter who fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and who became the character Gomez in Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy; his mother, Stepha, had been one of Beauvoir’s best friends at the Sorbonne and became “Sarah” in the same trilogy) and Gerassi himself later became accepted too. Interviewer and interviewee thus know each other very well and have established a high degree of trust between them, which was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Sartre authorized Gerassi to write his biography, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century. It also helps explain why Sartre does not bridle at the sometimes aggressive tone of the questioning. Gerassi’s own history as an activist and revolutionary in the anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s lend the questioning a sense of urgency: Sartre, while not on the defensive, is frequently taken to task by Gerassi for not having done enough or gone far enough for a particular cause. He is taken to task, for instance, for not having followed Gerassi’s father to Spain to fight, instead holding the view that Fernando had betrayed his artistic commitment in deciding to go (Gerassi senior was in fact one of the last generals to leave Barcelona. You can read his story here.) Sartre struggles to explain his position on this occasion, and on many others throughout the interviews, but very rarely does he make excuses for himself or try to shift the blame onto circumstances. Each position he adopted seems to have been carefully thought through-cynics might say every desire was given retrospective justification-and only on occasion is he caught out saying, “What else could I do? I’m a Bourgeois, after all.”

The interviews in the book took place between November 1970 and November 1974, with the subject matter in each interview going back and forth from past to present. Thus, at the same time as we learn about Sartre’s childhood (b. 1905) in Paris and La Rochelle, we get Sartre’s opinions on contemporaneous events, such as Mao’s cultural revolution and the Munich Olympics massacre. The language sometimes seems somewhat stilted even though conversational. There’s a good reason for this, I think. Sartre admits that he did not become political or develop any sense of society until the end of the war, having experienced life as a P.O.W. in a German prison camp, the kind of place where there was very little privacy or dignity (in an interview elsewhere I recall him recounting an epiphany when he and Beauvoir decided to go skiing in the mountains one Sunday and were amazed to find that hundreds of other people had also decided, with comparable free will, to engage in the same activity). The turn to Marxism that Sartre’s philosophy subsequently underwent as he tried to reconcile it with existentialism meant that he had to do an awful lot of catching up in terms not just of acquainting himself with the reality of workers’ lives but also of learning the language of Marxist philosophy. Spend long enough working with and thinking in abstractions, and eventually they end up seeming more real than the entities they’re supposed to be referring to. A typical exchange might go something like

Gerassi: Hi, Sartre, I’m early today.

Sartre: Yes. You caught me coming back from the tobacco kiosk.

Gerassi: Really? Did you get a chance to talk to the Masses?

Sartre: Yes, I did. I spoke to them about the need for the Black Panthers to develop a revolutionary strategy that reflected the decomposition of the proletariat.

Gerassi: Very good. Did they seem receptive?

Sartre: Not particularly. The Masses said they had to go home because their cystitis was playing up.

I exaggerate for comic effect, but the absence of self-awareness that usually accompanies similar such exchanges will be familiar with anyone with experience of ultra-leftist organizations, and Sartre and Gerassi’s own apparent ease with the executions of counter-revolutionaries in Cuba suggests the sort of latent sociopathy one often finds in those high up hierarchical organizations used to pushing people around checkerboards by the thousand.

Josef Stalin is supposed, erroneously, to have said, “the death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is just a statistic.” It isn’t of course. It’s a million tragedies. Sartre freely admits his failure to either reconcile existentialism, his philosophy of the individual par excellence, with Marxism, or to complete his promised Ethics. The first of these he intended to achieve with his massive Critique of Dialectical Reason, a work that attempts to situate the individual within history, as understood by Marxism. Sartre regarded this as an attempt to save the individual, to demonstrate that there is a small margin of freedom, a glint of light, beneath the overwhelming economic forces that carry societies, states, classes, and history along. It is another intimidating work that rewards reading, a Marxist version of Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action, if you will. It remained incomplete, as Sartre was overtaken by the force of history himself. His use of speed for 40 years of his life on a routine basis had destroyed his health and ruined his eyesight, making completion of the work impossible. But Sartre had also witnessed the “Events” of 1968, in which many of his cherished Marxist ideas were thrown into doubt by not just the New Left but by the feminist and black power movements that undermined the primacy of class as the principal determinant of social structure, change, and history (when asked by the students occupying the Sorbonne what he was doing there, Sartre received a round of applause for his canny answer: to learn). Unable to bring himself to completely align himself with anarchism while nevertheless cherishing the anarchist implications of his philosophy, he went from being a fellow traveller of the Communists to a defender of Maoism, the form of Marxism that, as he understood it, came closest to a nonhierarchical Marxist organization; the cultural revolution, as he understood it, was a radical casting into doubt of the right of the Communist Party bureaucracy to legislate for the people. Putting lawyers, writers, ballet dancers, and assorted bureaucrats to work in the fields and factories could not but help them gain some empathy for the struggles of the peasants and workers. I wouldn’t mind seeing it myself.

Sartre had also been moving towards a more “situational” ethics, recognizing, at last, the impossibility of legislating for humanity as a whole, as he had once tried to do in Existentialism and Humanism. Rather than espousing a kind of modified Kantian categorical imperative, he increasingly returned to the specificity of each individual event, situation, occasion. To generate an ethics on that basis requires once more that we recognize and value the importance of each individual, a message explicit in Sartre’s early philosophy. Arguably it was necessary for Sartre’s thinking to go through the detour of Marxism to achieve the more sophisticated, socially aware form that it acquired toward the end of his life; ironic, even, that Marxism should be responsible for this dialectical Aufhebung. Sadly, however, that detour also meant that Sartre did not live long enough to see his project through. We can only speculate as to what his third masterpiece might have looked like.

Talking with Sartre offers a warts and all profile of Sartre. He is candid about his many love affairs, sometimes, perhaps often, to his detriment. Some readers might reflect that it is easier for some people to be candid than others. In the preface, Gerassi recounts how he turns up for lunch with Sartre and Beauvoir on one occasion after breaking up with a girl and clearly upset:

Sartre looked hard at my face through his walleyes, then said: “Well, I envy you. I have never cried for a woman in my life.”

Beauvoir was crushed. Sartre sensed it, so he quickly tried to explain. “When Castor [Beauvoir] and I decided to have what you call an open relationship, we realized that passion inevitably leads to possessiveness and jealousies. So, as you know, we decided that our relationship would be ‘necessary’ but that we would be free to have others, which we called ‘contingent.’ That demanded that we eliminate passion, the kind of hard emotions which often manifest themselves with tears. But I now realize . . . well, I envy you-you can cry at forty, and I never have at seventy.”

I could see that Beauvoir was suffering deeply. Obviously, she had often shed a tear for her lover, Sartre or another, and obviously was hurt that he had not.

Even in the most transparent of relationships, some compromises are more painful than others.

In 1976, the three-hour documentary Sartre par lui-même (Sartre by Himself) featured Sartre, Beauvoir, and a number of close friends covering similar ground to that in Gerassi’s book. The text of the documentary was released in English in paperback, but it’s very difficult to find now. The video itself is out there on VHS with English subtitles, I believe, and a special 30th-anniversary 2-disc edition came out on DVD in 2007, if your French is up to it (I had to follow the conversation with English text in hand). If not, then Gerassi’s book is a fine alternative, offering an intimate and representative introduction to Sartre the man, the writer, and the philosopher. And a fascinating read, to boot.

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