‘Sartre has undoubtedly dominated his generation and had no successor.’ This is the verdict on his work in a school text-book, a critical study of post-war French literature, published in the 1970s. It is not for the sociologist to agree or disagree with this verdict; he has to take it for what it is, i.e. an indisputable social fact, and to endeavour to account for it, to make it intelligible. What made Sartre, the (French) intellectual par excellence, possible? What were the enabling conditions for this total intellectual, active on every front, as philosopher, critic, novelist and dramatist? These are typically anti-Sartrian questions. Sartre, who created the intellectual as an uncreated creator, never ceased, in the many self-analyses and self-critiques he produced throughout his career, to assert his capacity for exhaustive knowledge of his own truth, as an individual and as an intellectual. In so doing, he ruled out in advance, as reductive, any attempt to circumscribe the uncircumscribable, to classify the unclassifiable.
What if Sartre had been only the ideologist of the intellectuals, confident that they would recognise themselves in the image he reflected back to them, that of the total intellectual who cannot be reduced to any determination? What if Sartre, who reigned unchallenged over the whole intellectual universe, was totally dominated by what he dominated? What if the free intellectual were actually the most determinate of intellectuals, unaware as he is that the determinations attaching to his social position lie precisely in the illusion of the absence of determination?
Sartre’s uniqueness consisted in the fact that, by a coup de force which presupposed a good deal of force and a good deal of violence (the unassuming old man at protest meetings and on marches has made us forget the young normalien’s ‘masterly self-assurance’, which the critics hailed in his early writings), he brought together a set of hitherto separate ways of filling the role of intellectual. One would need to go deep into social history to show that all the components of the social figure of the intellectual were in existence well before the capital-concentrating operation whereby Sartre combined them in his own person. What can be briefly outlined is the logic of the process of accumulation by which Sartre made himself the point of convergence of the many different ways of being an intellectual invented and established in the course of France’s intellectual history. By crossing the invisible frontier which divided professors, philosophers and critics from writers – petty-bourgeois ‘scholarship boys’ from bourgeois ‘inheritors’, science from genius, the ponderously conceptual from the subtly literary – Sartre created a new character: the writer-philosopher and metaphysician-novelist. His philosophical ‘revolution’ against theories of knowledge (symbolised by Léon Brunschvicg) is inseparable from a ‘revolution’ in philosophical writing. The application of Husserl’s theory of intentionality, which leads him to abandon the closed world of the self-knowing consciousness for the open world of a consciousness ‘exploding towards’ things, towards the world, towards other people, entails the irruption into philosophical discourse of a whole universe of new objects (the famous café waiter, for example) which had previously been excluded from the rather stuffy atmosphere of ‘academic’ philosophy and left to the writers. It also requires a new, openly literary, way of talking about these objects. Philosophy takes to the streets and the philosopher, like the literary man, writes at café tables. By his choice of Gallimard, the bastion of pure literature, as publishers for his works of philosophy, which would previously have been sent to Alcan, the predecessor of the Presses Universitaires de France, Sartre abolished the frontier between literary philosophy and philosophical literature, between the literary effects encouraged by phenomenological analysis and the existential analyses of such metaphysical novels as La Nausée or Le Mur. His ‘thesis’ plays dramatise and popularise philosophical arguments, so fitting them to enter both the bourgeois living-room and the philosophy classroom.
Criticism, traditionally assigned to academics, is the indispensable accompaniment of this cultural revolution. In Sartre’s apprentice years, analysing the authors he admired, all of whom lay outside the academic pantheon, was no doubt a (somewhat academic) way of identifying and assimilating the techniques that defined the ‘professional’ avant-garde writer who then integrated the innovations of Joyce, Kafka and Faulkner into a literary form that was immediately, and rightly, recognised as very ‘classical’. But neither in the novel nor in the theatre, where he remains closer to Giraudoux, another normalien, or possibly Brecht (in Les Séquestrés d’Altona) than to Ionesco or Beckett, did he achieve the formal revolution he demands in Situations. Critical discourse, being by nature normative, or rather performative, serves to disguise what is in fact a bid to establish a monopoly of literary legitimacy as the analytical conclusions of the critic, by imposing a new definition of the writer and of the novel form. When Sartre writes, à propos of Faulkner, that a narrative technique implies a metaphysics, he sets up Sartre, rather than Gide, Mauriac, Malraux et al., as holding the monopoly of novelistic legitimacy, since he is its sole accredited metaphysician.
The self-legitimising function of his criticism is most evident in those cases where it borders on polemic and is applied to his closest competitors, Camus, Blanchot or Bataille, all of them aspirants to the dominant position where there is only room for one, and to the corresponding emblems and attributes, such as the right to lay claim to the heritage of Kafka, the metaphysician-novelist par excellence. But the self-distinguishing strategies which criticism makes possible would be nothing if they were not based on a ‘total’ oeuvre which entitles its author to mobilise in each field of intellectual practice the totality of the technical and symbolic capital he has acquired in others. By claiming that the total intellectual is the only legitimate intellectual, Sartre negatively defines his rivals as partial, even stunted intellectuals. Merleau-Ponty, despite a few excursions into criticism, is only a philosopher; Camus, having naively exposed his philosophical amateurishness in Le Mythe de Sisyphe or L’Homme Révolté, is only a novelist; Blanchot is only a critic and Bataille only an essayist; while Raymond Aron is relegated to the rank of sociologist or political scientist, and is in any case disqualified for failing to adopt another necessary component of the total intellectual, left-wing commitment.
The pre-war critical writings and philosophical manifestos – and also La Nausée, which was immediately recognised as a ‘masterly’ fusion of literature and philosophy – prepared the ground for Sartre’s concentration of all forms of intellectual capital in the character of the total intellectual. This was achieved immediately after the war, with the founding of Les Temps Modernes, an institution specifically designed for the concentration and exercise of intellectual power. As the composition of the editorial board testifies, this ‘intellectual journal’ brought together under Sartre’s banner the living representatives of all the intellectual traditions reconciled in the work and person of its founder; it made it possible to turn Sartre’s project of thinking all aspects of existence into a collective programme (‘nous ne devons rien manquer de notre temps,’ as the early policy statements said) and so to direct all intellectual production, both in its form and in its themes (for example, in the choice of topics for special issues). In fact, the idea of reconciling all cultural productions is a particular form of philosophical ambition, springing from the union of two phenomenologies, that of Hegel, as read by Alexandre Kojève, and that of Husserl, as revised by Heidegger. Through it, philosophy (which, especially with Kant, had stood out against ‘worldly’ compromises) achieved the commanding position in the intellectual field which it had always claimed for itself – but never attained, except in universities. It is no accident that Sartre’s totalising ambition, the intellectual expression of the will to absolute power, is most clearly asserted in his philosophical works, starting with L’Etre et le Néant, the first affirmation of the will to unout-thinkable thought (‘pensée indépassable’) which was to find its absolute weapon in the omnivorous dialectics of that ultimate effort to maintain a threatened intellectual power, the Critique de la Raison Dialectique. The sheer bulk of the book, which is that of a summa or treatise, the range of subjects it deals with – love, death, desire, emotion, perception, imagination, memory and history – the seigneurial manner (signalled, inter alia, by the absence of references) of its confrontations with the most prestigious authors, Hegel, Husserl or Heidegger, and above all, perhaps, the endeavour to out-think and subsume everything (starting with the objects of rival systems of thought such as psychoanalysis or the social sciences): every aspect of the work testifies to the will to exercise the philosopher’s traditional claim to be the ultimate founding authority, and to do so, unchallenged, in every realm of existence and thought. Sartre’s most reliable annexation strategy is to set himself up as a transcendent consciousness, capable of supplying the person or institution to which it addresses itself with a self-truth of which that person or institution has been dispossessed. The typically philosophical strategy of radical out-thinking (one of Heidegger’s favourite tactics), which is used systematically in the struggle against the social sciences, lay at the heart of Sartre’s relationship with the Communist Party – and, later, with Marxism.
We must pause now to examine Sartre’s relationship to politics. In the process whereby the different characteristics of the intellectual accrued to him, Sartre could not fail to encounter the figure of the committed intellectual, and the claim to supreme moral authority asserted by Zola and the other dreyfusards, which had become such an integral part of the image of the dominant intellectual that even Gide came briefly under its spell. Having become the embodiment of the intellectual par excellence, Sartre was bound to be confronted with politics, which meant, in the quasi-revolutionary period after the war, the Communist Party. And the strategy of radical out-thinking was the perfect means of giving a theoretically acceptable form to the relationship of mutual legitimisation which the Surrealists had established with the Party in the pre-war years – in other words, in a very different intellectual climate and at a very different moment in the Communist Party’s history. The free alliance between the ‘fellow-traveller’ and the Party has nothing in common with the unconditional surrender of the self (fit for the proletariat, according to the equation ‘the Party is the proletariat’) that some have seen in it. It is what enables the intellectual to constitute himself as the founding consciousness of the Party, to situate himself, vis-à-vis the Party and the people, as Pour-soi to En-soi, and so to obtain a certificate of revolutionary virtue while retaining an undiminished freedom in his strictly intellectual activity.
This distance from established positions and their occupants, whether Communists or Catholics, is what defines the ‘free intellectual’ and his transfiguration in ontology, the Pour-soi. In fact, it could be shown that the fundamental categories of Sartre’s ontology, the For-itself and the In-itself, are a sublimated form of the relationship between the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘bourgeois’, as seen by Sartre. The intellectual, an unjustified ‘bastard’, a lack of ‘being’, a thin film of nothingness, freedom, consciousness, moves between the bourgeois, the salauds of La Nausée, and the people, who have in common the fact that they are fully what they are, and nothing more; while the intellectual is distant from himself, separated from his being, and from all those who are only what they are, by the infinitesimal yet unfillable gap which is the source of both his wretchedness and his greatness. Wretchedness, and therefore greatness: this typically Pascalian reversal lies at the heart of the ideological transfiguration which, from Flaubert to Sartre (and beyond), has enabled the intellectual to make it a spiritual point of honour to transmute his exclusion from worldly power and privilege into a free choice. The ‘desire to be God’, the imaginary reunion of the In-itself and the For-itself, which Sartre sees as part of the universal human condition, may ultimately be only a transfigured form of the intellectual dream which Flaubert expressed more naively: ‘to live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god’ (i.e. like an intellectual).
Thus, even in his life, divided between his desk and the literary café, between artistic manifestos and political demonstrations, Sartre expressed and realised the cultural unconscious of the intellectuals (or, more precisely, of French teachers of philosophy). But he pushed to its final limit the illusion of self-transparency, of adequate self-consciousness, which gives rise to the desperate refusal of all determination and the pathetic struggle to rescue the intellectual from every kind of reduction to the general, to the type or class. In all his writings Sartre endlessly reworks the same problem, that of the social status of the intellectual: but always concludes with the same negation (a Freudian Verneinung), condensed into the schema of wretchedness and greatness and often professed (in accordance with Lacan’s paradigm of the ‘purloined letter’) in the form of excessive, ostentatious confession (‘I’m just a petty-bourgeois intellectual’). By the universalising of the particular case that occurs whenever an analysis of essence is applied to a lived experience of unspecified social particularity, Sartre converts the experience of the intellectual into an ontological structure, constitutive of human experience as a whole. Thus the intellectual, a ‘bourgeois’ who is capable of rejecting his class to fight at the side of the proletariat, will be rejected by those who have not chosen, because he has chosen: he is a privileged pariah – privileged to be a pariah – and cannot escape the curse, which is also his privilege, of consciousness and of a radical freedom vis-à-vis his condition and his conditioning. It is understandable that this message struck a chord in the intellectual public which went far beyond mere intellectual agreement, especially at a time when the political and social situation in France inclined that audience to anxious self-questioning.
To understand the ‘Sartre phenomenon’ more fully would require an analysis of the social demand for intellectual prophecy for intellectuals, and an account of the conditions at the time, the sense of breakdown, tragedy and anxiety associated with the collective and individual crises stemming from the war, the Resistance and the Liberation, and more especially of the structural conditions. One would at least have to bear in mind the existence and characteristics of an autonomous intellectual world with its own institutions for reproduction (the Ecole Normale Supérieure) and legitimisation (journals – the Nouvelle Revue Française – coteries, publishers, academies etc) and capable of sustaining an independent ‘aristocracy of the intelligence’ cut off from political power and even in a state of insurrection against it. One would also have to bear in mind the definition of the intellectual and of intellectual accomplishment recognised and sanctioned by these institutions, in particular by the classes (khâgnes) which prepare candidates for the Ecole Normale, the entrance examination to the Ecole Normale, and the competitive agrégation. In one of his earliest writings, Durkheim, who had resolutely taken the side of the professors, of specialisation and of science, denounced the pernicious effects of such scholastic exercises as the agrégation dissertation, which require a discourse de omni re scibili. The demand for the prophetic intellectual, and the ‘masterly self-assurance’ needed in order to satisfy it, can be seen as springing from the heart of the educational system on which intellectual prophecy apparently declares war. That demand and self-assurance are rooted in the very places which produced Jean-Paul Sartre, with his attitudes of mind and his qualifications, i.e. with all the symbolic capital he was to invest in his early intellectual strategies.
Born into a bourgeois family in Paris, educated at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, an agrégé in philosophy, Sartre was completely at home in the intellectual milieu. He is the perfect example of the inheritor inherited by his heritage: he was endowed with all the attributes needed to realise in its perfect form the character of the intellectual which the whole history of French intellectual life seems, in retrospect, to have prepared for him, starting with an adolescent self-assurance that lasted a lifetime, and which is one of the tacit conditions for occupying the commanding heights. The malaise he expresses – for example, in the theme of bastardy – is not uneasiness at being in the intellectual world, but the unease of being an intellectual. This is no doubt why intellectuals, who could see that this spokesman for the anxiety of intellectuals was also the most reassuring of intellectuals, recognised his right to dominate the intellectual world.
Those victims of their adolescent dreams who are now canvassing to succeed him as the intellectual par excellence are making a mistake in failing to see that the historical, and also the structural, conditions which made Sartre possible are now in the process of disappearing. The pressures of governmental bureaucracy and the glittering prizes of the media and the cultural goods market are combining to reduce the autonomy of the intelligentsia and its specific institutions of reproduction and consecration; they are threatening what was perhaps the rarest and most precious element in the Sartrian model of the intellectual, and the element most truly antithetical to ‘bourgeois’ attitudes of mind: the refusal of worldly power and privilege (even the Nobel Prize) and the affirmation of the strictly intellectual power and privilege of saying no to all worldly authorities.