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Scruton and Sartre

The National Post yesterday published a lengthy essay by English writer and philosopher Roger Scruton on Jean-Paul Sartre, who was born 100 years ago this June 21st. Scruton, who I enjoy a lot, does a good job of bringing pompous and bombastic Sartre into the light of day, showing him for the fraudulent narcissist and scoundrel that he no doubt was. If I had written this piece, the word genius would appear in scare quotes, but Scruton is perhaps more subtle his use of the scalpel than yours truly. This article originally appeared in The Spectator.

Scruton opens by summarizing what Sartre is best remembered for – claiming to be cut off from anything and everything; for anti-bourgeois rhetoric that is cloyingly bourgeois itself. If Sartre ever grasped the irony of this position, he seems to have kept that knowledge to himself. Writes Scruton:

It is fair to say that Sartre’s anti-bourgeois rhetoric changed the language and the agenda of post-war French philosophy, and was the original inspiration for Barthes, Foucault and the phoney psychotherapies of Lacan and R.D. Laing. It was translated into street theatre in May 1968, and fired the revolutionary ambitions of students who had come to Paris from the former colonies. One of those students was later to return to his native Cambodia and put into practice the ‘totalising’ doctrine (expressed in Critique de la raison dialectique, 1960, and in Situations VIII and Situations IX, 1972) that has as its targets the ‘seriality’ and ‘otherness’ of the bourgeois class. And in the purifying rage of Pol Pot it is not unreasonable to see the contempt for the ordinary and the actual that is expressed in almost every line of Sartre’s demonic prose. ‘Ich bin der Geist, der stets vemeint,’ says Mephistopheles – I am the spirit who always denies. The same can be said of Sartre, for whom l’enfer, c’est les autres – hell is other people (Huis clos. 1947). Like Milton’s Satan, Sartre saw the world transfigured by his own pride – a pride that caused him to refuse all tributes, from the Legion d’Honneur to the Nobel Prize, since they originated in the Other and not in the Self.

Having got that off my chest and given you a start on the bibliography, I can freely admit that Sartre was a genius who saw to the heart of the modern condition and who brought French romantic literature to a kind of self-conscious and also self-refuting climax. His masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, published in 1943 at the height of the second world war, is one of the great works of contemporary philosophy. Although he begins from the obscure and ultimately untenable ‘phenomenology’ of Edmund Husserl, Sartre unfolds an unforgettable portrait of the predicament in which we are placed by self-consciousness in the world of objects (the predicament of the pour-soi [for-itself] in relation to the en-soi [in-itself]). For the religious world-view, self-consciousness is a source of joy, proof of our apartness from nature, of our special relation to God and of our ultimate redemption, as we leap from the world into the arms of our Creator. For Sartre, self-consciousness is a kind of all-dominating nothingness, a source of anxiety: proof of our apartness, certainly, but also of our loneliness, which is a loneliness without redemption, since all the doors on our inner walls have been painted there by ourselves and none of them will open.

Was there ever a more “bourgeois” sentiment than “I am the Law?” If there is, perhaps it is “I hate the “bourgeois”.

Scruton pulls a particularly choice quote from Being and Nothingness, one Scruton describes as “announcing a new morality that has negation as its sole premise”:

I emerge alone and in dread in the face of the unique and first project that constitutes my being: All the barriers, all the railings, collapse, annihilated by the consciousness of my liberty; I have not, nor can I have, recourse to any value against the fact that it is I who maintain values in being; nothing can assure me against myself; cut off from the world and my essence by the nothing that I am, I have to realize the meaning of the world and my essence: I decide it, alone, unjustifiable, and without excuse.”

The problem, of course, is that negation is necessarily parasitic. It cannot exist without something else. To exist only in opposition is, truly, to be nothing. Hyperbolic nonsense like this can appeal only to teenagers and the mentally ill.

In a figure like Sartre, one can see the dramatic overreach of Enlightenment philosophy – the idea that with enough knowledge of the physical world, the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ will collapse, being revealed as an illusion, a mere social creation. In Sartre, the modern begins to crumble, to be discredited by the horror of World War II, and give way to the post modern. The hope that knowledge of what ‘is’ will reveal a new and ‘authentic’ liberating morality gives way to the admission, at last, that this hope is in fact folly. With that collapse, there remain only two possibilities. There can be a return to the old way of thinking, that ‘is’ and ‘ought’ are united only in God, who reveals himself only as he wishes and not as we wish, or, one can deny that the concept of ‘ought’ has any meaning or reality at all. That was the answer than Sartre gave, and that the post moderns echo still. The modern idea remains largely discredited to this day and what we are faced with now is the collapse of the post modern, although the timing is still in doubt.

Such a post modern collapse, how it happens and at what pace, are important because it is so basic to how one looks at the world. It will influence how we grapple with the current eruption of Islamic violence, for example. It will greatly influence our demographics, for good or ill. The bulk of this struggle is taking place in Europe, in France and in Germany – but especially in France, where the country seems to be stuck in quicksand under the notion that to abandon it’s post WWII projects and their animating ideas is somehow to become undone. This is surely looking at everything backwards.

On Sartre’s influence on the Gauls, Scruton suggests that:

The French have not recovered from Sartre and perhaps never will. For they have had to live with an intellectual establishment that has consistently repudiated the two things that hold the country together: Christianity and the idea of France. The anti-bourgeois posture of the left-bank intellectual has entered the political process, and given rise to an elite for whom nothing is certain save the repudiation of the national idea. It is thanks to this elite that the mad project of European Union has become indelibly inscribed in the French political process, even though the people of France reject it. It is thanks to this elite that the mass immigration into France of unassimilable Muslim communities has been both encouraged and subsidised. It is thanks to this elite that socialism has been so firmly embedded in the French state that no one now can reform it. And it is thanks to this elite that, even today, when the ordinary French citizen has had the anti-bourgeois message up to the eyeballs — ras-le-bol — the intellectual agenda remains unchanged, with transgression as its dominating purpose…

However, man cannot live by negation alone. Notwithstanding his heroic attempt to live in recoil from the world of others, Sartre envisaged an ideal community — a Kingdom of Ends in which he would be finally united with les ouvriers, and of which he was already in some mystical way a part. In his later writings, therefore, he comforted himself with the invocation of a new form of society whose only foundation would be authentic choice. In this groupe en fusion the intellectual and the proletarian would be united, without the mediating structures of custom, authority and law. Thus would the intellectual be redeemed, without paying the normal and intolerable price of redemption, which is obedience.

If you look at Sartre’s philosophy in that way, you will see through it to its ultimate origins in Rousseau. Moreover, Sartre’s invocation of the workers recalls Rousseau’s invocation of le peuple, to whom the intellectual is supposedly bound by a compassionate zeal. And just as Robespierre used Rousseau’s philosophy to justify the greatest attack on the people that the modern world had witnessed, so did Sartre use his philosophy to justify the totalitarian regimes that had done most to ruin the hopes of the working class. Whether Sartre was as great a writer or as ingenious a thinker as Rousseau I do not know. But he was certainly as pernicious an influence.

The sooner we grasp the ‘let them eat cake’ nature of Sartre the better. The carrot of ‘authentic choice’ is a phantom; it is just another stick with which to rain contempt on good people who work and who’s work awakens in them the knowledge that their fate is bound up with coming to understand the natural bonds that unite people and communities together. In this way they know that they must look out and not in if they are to ever gain anything at all.


Written by Curt

July 9, 2005 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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