Edward Said: "My Encounter with Sartre"

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Mon Dec 25 01:26:38 MST 2000

_London Review of Books_ 22.11 (1 June 2000)

My Encounter with Sartre

Edward Said

Once the most celebrated intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre had, until
quite recently, almost faded from view.  He was already being
attacked for his 'blindness' about the Soviet gulags shortly after
his death in 1980, and even his humanist Existentialism was ridiculed
for its optimism, voluntarism and sheer energetic reach.  Sartre's
whole career was offensive both to the so-called Nouveaux
Philosophes, whose mediocre attainments had only a fervid
anti-Communism to attract any attention, and to the
post-structuralists and Post-Modernists who, with few exceptions, had
lapsed into a sullen technological narcissism deeply at odds with
Sartre's populism and his heroic public politics.  The immense sprawl
of Sartre's work as novelist, essayist, playwright, biographer,
philosopher, political intellectual, engaged activist, seemed to
repel more people than it attracted.  From being the most quoted of
the French _maîtres penseurs_, he became, in the space of about
twenty years, the least read and the least analysed.  His courageous
positions on Algeria and Vietnam were forgotten.  So were his work on
behalf of the oppressed, his gutsy appearance as a Maoist radical
during the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, as well as his
extraordinary range and literary distinction (for which he both won,
and rejected, the Nobel Prize for Literature).  He had become a
maligned ex-celebrity, except in the Anglo-American world, where he
had never been taken seriously as a philosopher and was always read
somewhat condescendingly as a quaint occasional novelist and
memoirist, insufficiently anti-Communist, not quite as chic and
compelling as (the far less talented) Camus.

Then, as with many things French, the fashion began to change back,
or so it seemed at a distance.  Several books about him appeared, and
once again he has (perhaps only for a moment) become the subject of
talk, if not exactly of study or reflection.  For my generation he
has always been one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th
century, a man whose insight and intellectual gifts were at the
service of nearly every progressive cause of our time.  Yet he seemed
neither infallible nor prophetic.  On the contrary, one admired
Sartre for the efforts he made to understand situations and, when
necessary, to offer solidarity to political causes.  He was never
condescending or evasive, even if he was given to error and
overstatement.  Nearly everything he wrote is interesting for its
sheer audacity, its freedom (even its freedom to be verbose) and its
generosity of spirit.

There is one obvious exception, which I'd like to describe here.  I'm
prompted to do so by two fascinating, if dispiriting discussions of
his visit to Egypt in early 1967 that appeared last month in
_Al-Ahram Weekly_.  One was in a review of Bernard-Henry Lévy's
recent book on Sartre; the other was a review of the late Lotfi
al-Kholi's account of that visit (al-Kholi, a leading intellectual,
was one of Sartre's Egyptian hosts).  My own rather forlorn
experience with Sartre was a very minor episode in a very grand life,
but it is worth recalling both for its ironies and for its poignancy.

It was early in January 1979, and I was at home in New York preparing
for one of my classes.  The doorbell announced the delivery of a
telegram and as I tore it open I noticed with interest that it was
from Paris.  'You are invited by _Les Temps modernes_ to attend a
seminar on peace in the Middle East in Paris on 13 and 14 March this
year.  Please respond.  Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.'  At
first I thought the cable was a joke of some sort.  It might just as
well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come
to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an
afternoon at the offices of the Dial.  It took me about two days to
ascertain from various friends in New York and Paris that it was
indeed genuine, and far less time than that to despatch my
unconditional acceptance (this after learning that _les modalités_,
the French euphemism for travel expenses, were to be borne by _Les
Temps modernes_, the monthly journal established by Sartre after the
war).  A few weeks later I was off to Paris.

_Les Temps modernes_ had played an extraordinary role in French, and
later European and even Third World, intellectual life.  Sartre had
gathered around him a remarkable set of minds -- not all of them in
agreement with him -- that included Beauvoir of course, his great
opposite Raymond Aron, the eminent philosopher and Ecole Normale
classmate Maurice Merleau-Ponty  (who left the journal a few years
later), and Michel Leiris, ethnographer, Africanist and bullfight
theoretician.  There wasn't a major issue that Sartre and his circle
didn't take on, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which resulted
in a monumentally large edition of _Les Temps modernes_ -- in turn
the subject of a brilliant essay by I.F. Stone.  That alone gave my
Paris trip a precedent of note.

When I arrived, I found a short, mysterious letter from Sartre and
Beauvoir waiting for me at the hotel I had booked in the Latin
Quarter.  'For security reasons,' the message ran, 'the meetings will
be held at the home of Michel Foucault.'  I was duly provided with an
address, and at ten the next morning I arrived at Foucault's
apartment to find a number of people -- but not Sartre -- already
milling around.  No one was ever to explain the mysterious 'security
reasons' that had forced a change in venue, though as a result a
conspiratorial air hung over our proceedings.  Beauvoir was already
there in her famous turban, lecturing anyone who would listen about
her forthcoming trip to Teheran with Kate Millett, where they were
planning to demonstrate against the chador; the whole idea struck me
as patronising and silly, and although I was eager to hear what
Beauvoir had to say, I also realised that she was quite vain and
quite beyond arguing with at that moment.  Besides, she left an hour
or so later (just before Sartre's arrival) and was never seen again.

Foucault very quickly made it clear to me that he had nothing to
contribute to the seminar and would be leaving directly for his daily
bout of research at the Bibliothèque Nationale.  I was pleased to see
my book _Beginnings_ on his bookshelves, which were brimming with a
neatly arranged mass of materials, including papers and journals.
Although we chatted together amiably it wasn't until much later (in
fact almost a decade after his death in 1984) that I got some idea
why he had been so unwilling to say anything to me about Middle
Eastern politics.  In their biographies, both Didier Eribon and James
Miller reveal that in 1967 he had been teaching in Tunisia and had
left the country in some haste, shortly after the June War.  Foucault
had said at the time that the reason he left had been his horror at
the 'anti-semitic' anti-Israel riots of the time, common in every
Arab city after the great Arab defeat.  A Tunisian colleague of his
in the University of Tunis philosophy department told me a different
story in the early 1990s: Foucault, she said, had been deported
because of his homosexual activities with young students.  I still
have no idea which version is correct.  At the time of the Paris
seminar, he told me he had just returned from a sojourn in Iran as a
special envoy of _Corriere della sera_.  'Very exciting, very
strange, crazy,' I recall him saying about those early days of the
Islamic Revolution.  I think (perhaps mistakenly) I heard him say
that in Teheran he had disguised himself in a wig, although a short
while after his articles appeared, he rapidly distanced himself from
all things Iranian.  Finally, in the late 1980s, I was told by Gilles
Deleuze that he and Foucault, once the closest of friends, had fallen
out over the question of Palestine, Foucault expressing support for
Israel, Deleuze for the Palestinians.

Foucault's apartment, though large and obviously extremely
comfortable, was starkly white and austere, well suited to the
solitary philosopher and rigorous thinker who seemed to inhabit it
alone.  A few Palestinians and Israeli Jews were there.  Among them I
recognised only Ibrahim Dakkak, who has since become a good Jerusalem
friend, Nafez Nazzal, a teacher at Bir Zeit whom I had known
superficially in the US, and Yehoshofat Harkabi, the leading Israeli
expert on 'the Arab mind', a former chief of Israeli military
intelligence, fired by Golda Meir for mistakenly putting the Army on
alert.  Three years earlier, we had both been fellows at the Stanford
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, but we did not
have much of a relationship.  It was always polite but far from
cordial.  In Paris, he was in the process of changing his position,
to become Israel's leading establishment dove, a man who was soon to
speak openly about the need for a Palestinian state, which he
considered to be a strategic advantage from Israel's point of view.
The other participants were mostly Israeli or French Jews, from the
very religious to the very secular, although all were pro-Zionist in
one way or another.  One of them, Eli Ben Gal, seemed to have a long
acquaintance with Sartre: we were later told that he had been
Sartre's guide on a recent trip to Israel.

When the great man finally appeared, well past the appointed time, I
was shocked at how old and frail he seemed.  I recall rather
needlessly and idiotically introducing Foucault to him, and I also
recall that Sartre was constantly surrounded, supported, prompted by
a small retinue of people on whom he was totally dependent.  They, in
turn, had made him the main business of their lives.  One was his
adopted daughter who, I later learned, was his literary executor; I
was told that she was of Algerian origin.  Another was Pierre Victor,
a former Maoist and co-publisher with Sartre of the now defunct
_Gauche prolétarienne_, who had become a deeply religious and, I
supposed, Orthodox Jew; it stunned me to find out later from one of
the journal's assistants that he was an Egyptian Jew called Benny
Lévy, the brother of Adel Ref'at (né Lévy), one of the so-called
Mahmoud Hussein pair (the other being a Muslim Egyptian: the two men
worked at Unesco and as 'Mahmoud Hussein' wrote _La Lutte des classes
en Egypte_, a well-known study published by Maspero).  There seemed
to be nothing Egyptian about Victor: he came across as a Left Bank
intellectual, part-thinker, part-hustler.  Third was Hélène von
Bülow, a trilingual woman who worked at the journal and translated
everything for Sartre.  Although he had spent time in Germany and had
written not only on Heidegger, but on Faulkner and Dos Passos, Sartre
knew neither German nor English.  An amiable and elegant woman, Von
Bülow remained at Sartre's side for the two days of the seminar,
whispering simultaneous translations into his ear.  Except for one
Palestinian from Vienna who spoke only Arabic and German, our
discussion was in English.  How much Sartre actually understood I
shall never know, but it was (to me and others) profoundly
disconcerting that he remained silent throughout the first day's
proceedings.  Michel Contat, Sartre's bibliographer, was also there,
but did not participate.

In what I took to be the French style, lunch -- which in ordinary
circumstances would have taken an hour or so -- was a very elaborate
affair taken at a restaurant some distance away; and since it had
been raining non-stop, transporting everyone in cabs, sitting through
a four-course meal, then bringing the group back again, took about
three and a half hours.  So on the first day our discussions about
'peace' lasted for a relatively short time.  The themes were set out
by Victor without any consultation with anyone else, so far as I
could see.  Early on, I sensed that he was a law unto himself, thanks
no doubt to his privileged relationship with Sartre (with whom he
occasionally had whispered exchanges), and to what seemed to be a
sublime self-confidence.  We were to discuss: (1) the value of the
peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (this was Camp David time), (2)
peace between Israel and the Arab world generally, and (3) the rather
more fundamental question of future coexistence between Israel and
the surrounding Arab world.  None of the Arabs seemed happy with
this.  I felt it leapfrogged over the matter of the Palestinians.
Dakkak was uneasy with the whole set-up and left after the first day.

As that day wore on, I slowly discovered that a good deal of
negotiating had gone on beforehand to bring the seminar about, and
that what participation there was from the Arab world was
compromised, and hence abridged, by all the prior wheeling and
dealing.  I was somewhat chagrined that I hadn't been included in any
of this.  Perhaps I had been too naive -- too anxious to come to
Paris to meet Sartre, I reflected.  There was talk of Emmanuel
Levinas being involved, but, like the Egyptian intellectuals whom
we'd been promised, he never showed up.  In the meantime all our
discussions were being recorded and were subsequently published in a
special issue of _Les Temps modernes_ (September 1979).  I thought it
was pretty unsatisfactory.  We were covering more or less familiar
ground, with no real meeting of minds.

Beauvoir had been a serious disappointment, flouncing out of the room
in a cloud of opinionated babble about Islam and the veiling of
women.  At the time I did not regret her absence; later I was
convinced she would have livened things up.  Sartre's presence, what
there was of it, was strangely passive, unimpressive, affectless.  He
said absolutely nothing for hours on end.  At lunch he sat across
from me, looking disconsolate and remaining totally uncommunicative,
egg and mayonnaise streaming haplessly down his face.  I tried to
make conversation with him, but got nowhere.  He may have been deaf,
but I'm not sure.  In any case, he seemed to me like a haunted
version of his earlier self, his proverbial ugliness, his pipe and
his nondescript clothing hanging about him like so many props on a
deserted stage.  I was very active in Palestinian politics at the
time: in 1977 I had become a member of the National Council, and on
my frequent visits to Beirut (this was during the Lebanese civil war)
to visit my mother, regularly saw Arafat, and most of the other
leaders of the day.  I thought it would be a major achievement to
coax Sartre into making a pro-Palestinian statement at such a 'hot'
moment of our deadly rivalry with Israel.

Throughout the lunch and the afternoon session I was aware of Pierre
Victor as a sort of station-master for the seminar, among whose
trains was Sartre himself.  In addition to their mysterious
whisperings at the table, he and Victor would from time to time get
up; Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at
him, get an intermittent nod or two, then they'd come back.
Meanwhile every member of the seminar wanted to have his or her say,
making it impossible to develop an argument, though it soon enough
became clear that Israel's enhancement (what today is called
'normalisation') was the real subject of the meeting, not the Arabs
or the Palestinians.  Several Arabs before me had spent time trying
to convince some immensely important intellectual of the justice of
their cause in the hope that he would turn into another Arnold
Toynbee or Sean McBride.  Few of these great eminences did.  Sartre
struck me as worth the effort simply because I could not forget his
position on Algeria, which as a Frenchman must have been harder to
hold than a position critical of Israel.  I was wrong of course.

As the turgid and unrewarding discussions wore on, I found that I was
too often reminding myself that I had come to France to listen to
what Sartre had to say, not to people whose opinions I already knew
and didn't find specially gripping.  I therefore brazenly interrupted
the discussion early in the evening and insisted that we hear from
Sartre forthwith. This caused consternation in the retinue.  The
seminar was adjourned while urgent consultations between them were
held.  I found the whole thing comic and pathetic at the same time,
especially since Sartre himself had no apparent part in these
deliberations.  At last we were summoned back to the table by the
visibly irritated Pierre Victor, who announced with the
portentousness of a Roman senator: 'Demain Sartre parlera.'  And so
we retired in keen anticipation of the following morning's

Sure enough Sartre did have something for us: a prepared text of
about two typed pages that -- I write entirely on the basis of a
twenty-year-old memory of the moment -- praised the courage of Anwar
Sadat in the most banal platitudes imaginable.  I cannot recall that
many words were said about the Palestinians, or about territory, or
about the tragic past.  Certainly no reference was made to Israeli
settler-colonialism, similar in many ways to French practice in
Algeria.  It was about as informative as a Reuters dispatch,
obviously written by the egregious Victor to get Sartre, whom he
seemed completely to command, off the hook.  I was quite shattered to
discover that this intellectual hero had succumbed in his later years
to such a reactionary mentor, and that on the subject of Palestine
the former warrior on behalf of the oppressed had nothing to offer
beyond the most conventional, journalistic praise for an already
well-celebrated Egyptian leader.  For the rest of that day Sartre
resumed his silence, and the proceedings continued as before.  I
recalled an apocryphal story in which twenty years earlier Sartre had
travelled to Rome to meet Fanon (then dying of leukemia) and
harangued him about the dramas of Algeria for (it was claimed) 16
non-stop hours, until Simone made him desist.  Gone for ever was that

When the transcript of the seminar was published a few months later,
Sartre's intervention had been edited down and made even more
innocuous.  I cannot imagine why; nor did I try to find out. Even
though I still have the issue of _Les Temps modernes_ in which we all
appeared, I haven't been able to bring myself to reread more than a
few extracts, so flat and unrewarding do its pages now seem to me.
So I went to Paris to hear Sartre in much the same spirit as Sartre
was invited to come to Egypt, to be seen and talked to by Arab
intellectuals -- with exactly the same results, though my own
encounter was coloured, not to say stained, by the presence of an
unattractive intermediary, Pierre Victor, who has since disappeared
into well deserved obscurity.  I was, I thought then, like Fabrice
looking for the Battle of Waterloo -- unsuccessful and disappointed.

One further point.  A few weeks ago I happened to catch part of
_Bouillon de culture_, Bernard Pivot's weekly discussion programme,
screened on French television, and broadcast in the US a short time
later.  The programme was about Sartre's slow posthumous
rehabilitation in the face of continuing criticism of his political
sins.  Bernard-Henry Lévy, than whom in quality of mind and political
courage there could scarcely be anyone more different from Sartre,
was there to flog his approving study of the older philosopher.  (I
confess that I haven't read it, and do not soon plan to.)  He was not
so bad really, said the patronising B-HL; there were things about
him, after all, that were consistently admirable and politically
correct.  B-HL intended this to balance what he considered the
well-founded criticism of Sartre (made into a nauseating mantra by
Paul Johnson) as having always been wrong on Communism.  'For
example,' B-HL intoned, 'Sartre's record on Israel was perfect: he
never deviated and he remained a complete supporter of the Jewish

For reasons that we still cannot know for certain, Sartre did indeed
remain constant in his fundamental pro-Zionism.  Whether that was
because he was afraid of seeming anti-semitic, or because he felt
guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep
appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against
Israel's injustice, or for some other reason, I shall never know.
All I do know is that as a very old man he seemed pretty much the
same as he had been when somewhat younger: a bitter disappointment to
every (non-Algerian) Arab who admired him.  Certainly Bertrand
Russell was better than Sartre, and in his last years (though led on
and, some would say, totally manipulated by my former Princeton
classmate and one-time friend, Ralph Schoenman) actually took
positions critical of Israel's policies towards the Arabs.  I guess
we need to understand why great old men are liable to succumb either
to the wiles of younger ones, or to the grip of an unmodifiable
political belief.  It's a dispiriting thought, but it's what happened
to Sartre.  With the exception of Algeria, the justice of the Arab
cause simply could not make an impression on him, and whether it was
entirely because of Israel or because of a basic lack of sympathy --
cultural or perhaps religious -- it's impossible for me to say.  In
this he was quite unlike his friend and idol Jean Genet, who
celebrated his strange passion for Palestinians in an extended
sojourn with them and by writing the extraordinary 'Quatre Heures à
Sabra et Chatila' and _Le Captif amoureux_.

A year after our brief and disappointing Paris encounter Sartre died.
I vividly remember how much I mourned his death.

Edward Said's memoir, _Out of Place_, was published last year.  _The
End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After_ will appear in this country
in September.


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