Jean-Paul Sartre, whose heyday as the “high priest of existentialism” is long past, has never settled comfortably into the role of an éminence grise. Each decade has seen him at once thoroughly engaged in the affairs of the moment and developing as a creative philosopher. He abandoned his career as a writer of “literature” with his last play, The Condemned of Altona (1959) and his autobiographical The Words (1964). Since then, he has expressed himself in philosophy (Critique of Dialectical Reason), literary criticism (the monumental studies of Genet and Flaubert), and in the ten volumes of essays, primarily on literary and political topics, which he calls Situations.
In Sartre’s first great philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, “situations” refer to the ways in which an engaged consciousness structures the world in which it finds itself. Writing on theater, Sartre calls the dramatic situation a “trap” from which a character, in asserting his freedom, creates an exit. The essays are aptly titled in that they represent ways of being engaged with the world and new developments of ongoing philosophical concerns.
The translators of Situations X have chosen to put the autobiographical interviews (“spoken essays”) before those on politics, reversing the order of the original. This no doubt reflects the fact that American readers will tend to be more interested in the personal and general topics Sartre treats in the interviews than in his more strictly French or European oriented political concerns. Sartre has never spoken about himself more freely or candidly than in “Self-Portrait at Seventy,” an interview with Michel Contat which first appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur in 1975. In a much briefer interview with Simone de Beauvoir, he attempts to explain his position, and earlier lack of position, on the feminist movement. In another interview with Contat, and with Michel Rybalka (who are collecting and editing Sartre’s complete works), Sartre comments on The Idiot of the Family and on the interests which led him to study Flaubert.
“Self-Portrait at Seventy” reveals almost immediately why the interview has become an important means of expression for Sartre. Since his vision is almost totally gone, he must now rely on the spoken word for all communication. Although he admits that not being able to read and write in one sense “robs me of all reason for existing” he seems to accept his condition with equanimity. Simone de Beauvoir reads him newspapers and books, he converses with his intimates and with others who wish to see him, he listens to music a great deal, and he is preparing, with others, a series of broadcasts for television. What he cannot work on in preparing speeches, he says, is style: for that he would have to be able to see the writing on the page. He admits to problems of adaptation which come with old age—he cannot adjust to the tape recorder. And while he acknowledges that many contemporary young people are scornful of preoccupation with style, he admits to an ongoing concern with literary manners of presentation.
In spite of this difficulty, a clearly Sartrean style still emerges from the pages of these situations. One does sense the lack of the striking metaphors which characterized Sartre’s novels and even his philosophical works, but the sharp, direct Sartrean voice is there. An ideal which Sartre still holds, and which he expresses here more directly than elsewhere, is that of complete candor: not sincerity, which involves “bad faith,” but transparency. He “can imagine the day when two men will no longer have secrets from each other, because no one will have any more secrets from anyone, because subjective life, as well as objective life, will be completely offered up, given.” Such a condition is not possible in the present state of society, but one can strive for it. The interview seems as good a vehicle as any.
Sartre’s views on himself, fascinating enough to those who have followed his life and work, are further enlivened by Contat’s occasional disagreements with them. For example, Contat refuses to accept Sartre’s characterization of himself as “just anybody” and points out that he has had various difficulties in adjusting himself to fame. In conformity with existentialist beliefs, Sartre refuses to “be” a famous man or an old man. He acknowledges the characteristics and the problems which old age gives him (one might say the situation of old age), he views his past life with a certain new serenity and acceptance, but he feels most comfortable and most creative with young people around the age of thirty.
Sartre also, of course, refuses to “be” an existentialist, a label which, he says, is now only used in textbooks, “where it doesn’t mean anything.” And yet, if one must have a label, Sartre would prefer “existentialist” to “Marxist.” Freedom, the overriding theme of his life and works, continues to be his major concern. Sartre still feels that existentialism can exist legitimately within the larger framework of Marxism. His...
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