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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2124

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 political goal is “to point out, emphasize and support . . . whatever aspects of a particular political and social situation can produce a society of free men.” In the present world context, the only such society possible will be a socialistic one. This society does not yet exist—certainly not in the USSR and not even in China; it is still to be created.

Simone de Beauvoir begins her questioning of Sartre with the observation that although he has consistently spoken out for oppressed groups (workers, blacks, Jews), he has never spoken of women as a group. In response to this, Sartre reflects on his past life and finds that he has always viewed women as individuals, never as a class with common interests or problems. Under further questioning, Sartre admits to a certain amount of macho in his life and works but says that he had assumed it to be an individual rather than a male trait. His awareness of women as a group or movement which intersects but does not correspond to the traditional class struggle between bourgeois and proletariat has thus constituted a kind of awakening.

Sartre’s analysis of how women constitute a common-interest group nonetheless seems somewhat dated; it is based on a view of women in traditional roles which have already altered radically in the past few years. The bourgeois woman, for example, is seen as bourgeois only through her husband—she has no direct relation to capital. The relations between such a woman and her maid are closer, of a different order, than those between worker and boss. Workingclass women need to be awakened to oppression at home, through their husbands, as well as to oppression through their class. Such a view does not account for the growing number of women at all social levels already in the work force. Simone de Beauvoir’s concern about what kind of work successful women will do—whether they will be preempted by existing male values or use their situation to transform society by working for feminist needs—seems more to the point. Sartre concurs that at the present stage women need to accept positions in the existing power structure.

Whatever the contradictions have been, one cannot in the end doubt the reality of Sartre’s commitment to feminism. His relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, although exceptional, is certainly, as she herself indicates, a case in point. At a time when many male intellectuals found the woman question laughable, Sartre supported de Beauvoir in her writing of The Second Sex and maintained with her a relationship in which the equality of both partners was never in question.

In speaking about The Idiot of the Family, Sartre must deal with the problem of implicit self-contradictions in his lifestyle and work. How can someone who said farewell to literature to devote himself to militancy involve himself in the exhaustive study of a nineteenth century literary figure? Sartre acknowledges that his aims are ambiguous: he is engaged both in a kind of escapism and in a search for a method, along with a redefinition of engagement, which will have contemporary implications. Sartre declares himself in opposition to the fundamental premise which unites most of the recent crop of critics in France and their disciples: he is completely opposed to the notion of a “text.” What interests him is the old critical idea of elucidating “the relationship between the man and the work.” The methodology which proceeds from this idea, however, is uniquely Sartrean: it combines the Marxist premise of a study of economic and ideological influences on the writer with the existential question of how the individual deals with his “situation” and forms his unique project.

At the end of the interview on The Idiot of the Family Sartre asks himself the question, “How can a political writer make himself understood by a popular audience while carrying out an idea to the very end?” The problem approached here, that of the relationship of the militant intellectual to the popular masses, is one dealt with more directly in his four political essays, “The Burgos Trial,” “The Maoists in France,” “Justice and the State,” and “Elections: A Trap for Fools.” In the second and third essays, in particular, Sartre discusses his role as editor of the Maoist Cause du peuple and his hopes for a publication which would permit workers and “country people” (a rather quaint translation of paysans) to speak directly to each other in their own language, without the intermediary of bourgeois expression. Sartre is always rather tiresome when he speaks with guilt about his inevitable bourgeois background, but in these essays he speaks more positively than usual of potential future alliances between workers and intellectuals.

The four essays, written in the early 1970’s, all betray the influence of the somewhat euphoric hopes which swept over Sartre and other members of the extreme left in the wake of May, 1968. The promise of the creation of an entirely new society, neither bourgeois democracy nor a staid and stale Communism, seems at hand. The spontaneous, popular, creative character of the May uprising signified, for Sartre, an announcement that bourgeois society was doomed. After May, 1968, Sartre tells us, he was able to formulate for himself the difference between a codified, permanent system of justice controlled by the state and an “irregular and primitive” popular justice in which the people protest the injustices they have suffered through oppression. This constitutes the theme of “Justice and the State.” One must choose between these two forms of justice, Sartre says, and May, 1968, enabled him to choose the latter.

Each of the essays takes a particular case as a point of departure and develops an aspect of a general theme: the “mystifications” perpetuated by bourgeois democracy and exposed by genuine popular needs. In “The Burgos Trial” Sartre reflects on the Basque uprising in Spain and its brutal repression by the Franco regime. He argues that suppression of nationalist movements within existing states is not merely a result of Fascism, as we would like to think, but inevitable even in democracies such as France which insist on treating men as abstract entities in a state rather than concrete members of a Basque or Breton community. The revolt against internal colonialism, which the Basque struggle exemplifies, is part of a popular movement and a claim to genuine, nonabstract identity. Similarly, in “Elections: A Trap for Fools,” Sartre argues that elections, which give people an abstract identity as voters, or citizens, rob them of their true identity and encourage them to betray the community or class to which they genuinely belong. Sartre opposes the condition of “seriality,” in which one assumes the characteristics of a statistical member of a group as defined by Others (a driver, a soldier, a television viewer, a voter) to those of genuine collectivity, popular sovereignty. Elections in no way offer people a chance to influence politics, but only to perpetuate the system of nonrepresentative democracy.

Sartre’s concept of a true socialist society seems in these essays rather vague and utopian. In the end, he reveals his true colors as an anarchist. The final words of the book (in the arrangement of the translators) are indicative: “We must try, each according to his own resources, to organize the vast anti-hierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.” The anarchic political position is perhaps after all the most consistent with Sartre’s philosophy.

The English translation of these interviews and essays reads well. With the exception of a few inaccuracies (“social sciences” for sciences humaines) it follows the French closely, and gives the French term when the translation cannot be exact. The American reader will find here a rich personal, philosophical, and political portrait of a man whose self-examination reveals an ongoing moral lucidity.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

America. CXXXVII, July 2, 1977, p. 17.

Book World. May 8, 1977, p. E13.

Choice. XIV, October, 1977, p. 1030.

Library Journal. CII, March 15, 1977, p. 712.

New York Times Book Review. April 3, 1977, p. 11.

Saturday Review. IV, April 2, 1977, p. 29.

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