Cos­tica Bra­datan

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cos­tica Bra­datan

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

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