Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Edward Said - Diary: an encounter with J-P Sartre

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 poignancy.
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.
Les Temps modernes had played an extraordinary role in French, and later European and even Third World, intellectual life. Sartre had gathered around him a remarkable set of minds – not all of them in agreement with him – that included Beauvoir of course, his great opposite Raymond Aron, the eminent philosopher and Ecole Normale classmate Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who left the journal a few years later), and Michel Leiris, ethnographer, Africanist and bullfight theoretician. There wasn’t a major issue that Sartre and his circle didn’t take on, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which resulted in a monumentally large edition of Les Temps modernes – in turn the subject of a brilliant essay by I.F. Stone. That alone gave my Paris trip a precedent of note.
When I arrived, I found a short, mysterious letter from Sartre and Beauvoir waiting for me at the hotel I had booked in the Latin Quarter. ‘For security reasons,’ the message ran, ‘the meetings will be held at the home of Michel Foucault.’ I was duly provided with an address, and at ten the next morning I arrived at Foucault’s apartment to find a number of people – but not Sartre – already milling around. No one was ever to explain the mysterious ‘security reasons’ that had forced a change in venue, though as a result a conspiratorial air hung over our proceedings. Beauvoir was already there in her famous turban, lecturing anyone who would listen about her forthcoming trip to Teheran with Kate Millett, where they were planning to demonstrate against the chador; the whole idea struck me as patronising and silly, and although I was eager to hear what Beauvoir had to say, I also realised that she was quite vain and quite beyond arguing with at that moment. Besides, she left an hour or so later (just before Sartre’s arrival) and was never seen again.
Foucault very quickly made it clear to me that he had nothing to contribute to the seminar and would be leaving directly for his daily bout of research at the Bibliothèque Nationale. I was pleased to see my book Beginnings on his bookshelves, which were brimming with a neatly arranged mass of materials, including papers and journals. Although we chatted together amiably it wasn’t until much later (in fact almost a decade after his death in 1984) that I got some idea why he had been so unwilling to say anything to me about Middle Eastern politics. .. read more: