The Existentialist Moment: The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual By Patrick Baert Polity, 225pp, $39.95 We often find ourselves wondering — especially when think we live in mediocre times — what it is that makes a historical moment great. Is it the presence and work of one particularly influential figure? Of a larger group of people perhaps? Or maybe it’s not even about people but a certain constellation of social, economic, political and intellectual factors that conspire to produce greatness?
It’s a weighty question and one, at times, of depressing urgency.
In The Existentialist Moment Patrick Baert examines the anatomy of one such moment of intellectual greatness: the rapid rise of existentialism in France at the end of World War II. He ostensibly focuses on one figure, Jean-Paul Sartre, yet in a sense Sartre functions as a case study in a broader and more ambitious theory of intellectual change.
Sartre is captured here, in distinctly slow motion, at a particular moment in his life and career: the fall of Berlin in 1945 (“the existentialist moment”). The book is an attempt, as the author puts it, “to comprehend this extraordinary case of public celebrity”.
Even though he was a published author by 1945, Sartre was largely unknown beyond certain Paris circles. There was nothing special about this 40-year-old high school philosophy teacher, the author of a technical treatise ( Being and Nothingness) that few people read and even fewer understood when it came out in 1943.
That’s what makes Sartre’s case all the more spectacular. Within just a few months, he rose from relative obscurity to extraordinary public prominence, and it was within the same time span that existentialism caught the imagination of the French public.
As Baert observes, during “September and October 1945 … existentialism became the name of the game and Sartre a pivotal figure in the public realm”.
How did that happen? According to Baert, Sartre knew how to position himself (positioning is the theory of intellectual change Baert proposes) in the postwar social-political circumstances. This was a period marked by the trials and purges of the collaborationist writers who worked (or were perceived to have worked) for the Germans during the occupation. But it was also a time of intense collective soul-searching in France, for which some philosophical clarification always helps. The public debates often were framed in the language of responsibility, freedom, silence, compromise and resistance.
That’s precisely where Sartre came in. Within this particular context he positioned himself as “an intellectual in the Dreyfusard tradition”: with his philosophical training at an exclusive institution (Ecole Normale Superieure) and the authority of someone who had been involved in the Resistance, he projected himself as a selfless thinker, politically progressive, who places himself in the service of his community.
But what did he do exactly? Sartre rearticulated “his philosophical position and made it pertinent to the situation at hand”. Indeed, as if to respond to French society’s urgent need to come to terms with its recent past, he provided a philosophical vocabulary that “expressed and reframed the experience of the war in ways that helped to … alleviate the trauma and helped sections of French society to move forward”.
His philosophical yet highly accessible journalism offered the shattered, self-doubting French public exactly what was badly needed at the time: a sense of communal reinvention, sur- vival and redemption. And Sartre was quite good at that. His articles exhibit, as Baert puts it, a “possibly unrivalled feel for the sensibilities and emotional needs at the time and an ability to express them vividly and lucidly, outlining his existentialist position while using nontechnical language”.
And it wasn’t only the written word that Sartre deployed in this grand purpose. Media savvy and with a taste for novelty, he experimented with radio, television and film, as well as delivering public lectures (most memorably, “L’existentialisme est un humanism” in October 1945).
Most decisively, he ran the journal Les Temps modernes, which perhaps more than all else established his influential position within the French society. And here we touch on another important aspect, to which Baert pays appropriate attention: Sartre was the leading figure of a larger group of people who were associated with him and with existentialism: Raymond Aron, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and others.
The Existentialist Moment is a clearly written, tightly argued and well-structured book. Baert, a Cambridge-based Belgian social theorist, doesn’t take anything for granted, proceeding with caution, methodically, to make sure he hasn’t lost his reader. At times this caution is overdone and the narrative becomes slow, repetitive and a bit didactic.
But overall Baert makes a convincing case for a socio-historical understanding of how philosophy works and how ideas can cause real world change. He shows persuasively that for new ideas to have a public impact they must address certain societal needs. Existentialism, and Sartre in particular, responded to the needs of a French society traumatised by war and occupation and still ashamed of its complicities.
is an associate professor of humanities at Texas Tech University and an honorary research associate professor of philosophy at the University of Queensland. His most recent book is Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers.
Jean-Paul Sartre with his lover and fellow writer Simone de Beauvoir in 1970