Clues to our ex­is­tence in Sartre’s think­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Though now lit­tle un­der­stood and of­ten mis­in­ter­preted, ex­is­ten­tial­ism hangs in the air we breathe. When Bren­dan Nel­son man­gled the word in de­scrib­ing the plight of in­dige­nous Aus­tralians in his re­sponse to Kevin Rudd’s lon­gover­due apol­ogy, he could not have done so if not for Jean-Paul Sartre, whose works were the foun­da­tion of the school of thought.

For two decades the imp­ish, brusque and in­de­fati­ga­ble French philoso­pher strad­dled in­ter­na­tional let­ters like a colos­sus, and in the shadow of the nu­clear slang­ing matches of the Cold War his clear-eyed, hard-edged and ab­stract works of prose and phi­los­o­phy — which ad­vise us, un­flinch­ingly, that we are all alone in the uni­verse and must rely on our­selves — cast a long shadow over our new cen­tury.

So Gary Cox’s ap­proach­able, chatty bi­og­ra­phy of the French­man is timely, pre­sent­ing an ac­ces­si­ble rein­tro­duc­tion to his life and work. A Sartre scholar and a pro­lific writer of pop­u­lar phi­los­o­phy books, Cox is all wit and clar­ity, even if he tends to merely re­flect back the Sartre that Sartre him­self wanted us to see.

But as a pit stop tour of the life of this glo­be­trot­ting in­tel­lec­tual, a man with a knack for keep­ing his name in the head­lines, Cox’s work thrills, mov­ing breezily from the spoiled provin­cial bour­geois child to the dis­sat­is­fied school­teacher con­vinced of his own ge­nius, to the age­ing and in-de­mand lit­er­ary grandee.

Cox’s prose mostly fizzes at­trac­tively, but some­times over­reaches. If Sartre were alive to­day, he’d be keep­ing a “reg­u­lar blog on his iPad”. When the word ‘‘ain’t” is put in the mouth of a de­fi­antly anti-Amer­i­can French­man, it does not ring true. Also, a keen in­tent on sprint­ing through events can leave Cox prone to de­plorable sum­mary: Sartre “drank … cam­paigned … and phys­i­cally de­te­ri­o­rated a lit­tle more” as he bat­ted off in­vi­ta­tions, muck­raked amid strike-torn Paris and vis­ited Nikita Khrushchev’s new swim­ming pool.

Such lev­ity is of­ten wel­come, though, as Sartre’s over­flow­ing life pro­vides am­ple ma­te­rial for Cox to rat­tle along with. A bad en­counter with mesca­line leads to a life­long fear of lob­sters; on tour he aban­dons Fidel Cas­tro in a ho­tel lobby; film di­rec­tor John Hus­ton sav­agely de­rides the French­man’s toad-like ap­pear­ance, the source of much of the self-loathing that pro­pelled Sartre to carve out a name for him­self on the world stage. Cox also niftily makes leg­i­ble the philo­soph­i­cal and per­sonal roots of the di­verse branches of Sartre’s work — phi­los­o­phy, nov­els, bi­og­ra­phy, plays — in di­gestible morsels, seam­lessly ne­go­ti­at­ing the heady ad­mix­ture of the shift­ing Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal con­text, the phe­nomenol­ogy of Ed­mund Husserl, and Sartre’s in­se­cu­ri­ties that fed his work.

Ren­der­ing Sartre’s philo­soph­i­cal mas­ter­piece, Be­ing and Noth­ing­ness, an ac­ces­si­ble work is an achieve­ment in it­self. Af­ter all, Sartre’s great con­tri­bu­tion there and in nov­els such as Nau­sea and The Age of Rea­son was to present a model of hu­man con­scious­ness and ac­tion in the ab­sence of God, tra­di­tion and moral­ity, one that put the in­di­vid­ual and their choices in build­ing their lives at the cen­tre of the equa­tion. This over­whelm­ing legacy earned him a No­bel prize, an hon­our the con­trar­ian Marx­ist ac­knowl­edged by re­fus­ing to ac­cept it.

When Cox turns to the ex­cesses that char­ac­terised Sartre’s life, the prose catches fire. Be­fore his pro­longed de­cline, Sartre wrote fu­ri­ously, trav­elled con­stantly, se­duced in­dis­crim­i­nately, took am­phet­a­mines and drank lots. He was part of a gen­er­a­tion of am­bi­tious and deeply flawed men of power. Cox tells this side of the story with a be­guil­ing mix of pruri­ence and pathos. How­ever, Cox’s se­lec­tive fo­cus on the events of Sartre’s life is telling. Sartre, af­ter all, drove his mis­tresses, his friends and his po­lit­i­cal al­lies to de­spair, most of all his long-suf­fer­ing part­ner, the pi­o­neer­ing fem­i­nist ge­nius Si­mone de Beau­voir.

Hazel Row­ley’s mag­is­te­rial de Beau­voir bi­og­ra­phy Tete-a-tete re­mains the book for those cu­ri­ous, as aside from their courtship, De Beau­voir ap­pears mostly in Cox’s book as a hand­bag Jean-Paul car­ries around the globe, and the one who changes his pants in his de­clin­ing years.

Tellingly, she gets a tick­ing off for re­veal­ing sea­sick­ness, a trait the great man deemed in­suf­fi­ciently ex­is­ten­tial­ist. Cox’s fi­nal ap­praisal sim­ply says their bond was the “stuff of leg­end”. It’s a leg­end he wants us to see.

To all Sartre’s mis­deeds, Cox of­fers a shrug. When he asks “who are any of us to crit­i­cise the man who wrote Nau­sea?” the con­text is not the sub­ject’s char­ac­ter but the de­clin­ing qual­ity of his post­war out­put. Cox writes of a Sartre with a wish to be “free to be im­mor­tal” as if “his real bones were pa­per, ink and glue … du­pli­cated to vir­tual in­de­struc­tibil­ity”, a de­sire this bi­og­ra­pher weirdly tends to grant. Also, in sit­u­at­ing Sartre as a tow­er­ing fig­ure of ge­nius, Cox ne­glects demon­strat­ing why his epoch made such fer­tile ground for his ver­tig­i­nous ideas.

Cox says he leaves read­ers to draw their own con­clu­sions. But in ro­man­ti­cis­ing Sartre’s life as a se­ries of serendip­i­ties, we form a pic­ture of a

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