Said and Sartre

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri May 26 06:44:48 MDT 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

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.

Full article at:

Louis Proyect

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