The Spirit of Sartre

by Peter Gabel

Taken as a whole, the work of Jean Paul Sartre is that of a sensitive man with a good heart gradually coming to understand the distinctly social aspect of human reality—that while we appear to ourselves as alone and struggling to make sense of things from within our own isolation, we are actually always powerfully connected in our very being to each other and, through the networks of reciprocity that enable our material and spiritual survival, to everyone on the planet.

Sartre’s early work for which he is best remembered in mainstream liberal culture–the period in his thirties and forties which produced the novel Nausea, the philosophical work Being and Nothingness, and the plays The Flies and No Exit among many, many other writings—were all addressed to “the man alone” struggling to find authentic meaning in a world without God and in a world pervaded by false images and false conceptions of what matters in life.  To a young person like me gradually emerging into the radical awareness of the 1960’s, this work was thrilling.  I was brought up within the image-world of upper middle-class New York culture, taught by word and gesture to accept that artificial world of the bourgeoisie as if it conformed to some real “essence,” as if the right thing to do in life was to do well in school, dress nicely, acquire my share of wealth by entrepreneurship or inheritance, get married, fit well and admirably into this or that pre-given role, and have a solid obituary. But to use the famous phrase drawn from one of his lectures, Sartre showed that “existence precedes essence”—that all of these pre-constructed forms or identity, worth, and value were actually made up, that it was “bad faith” to allow our longing for superficial security to rationalize draping them over ourselves as if they would safely install us in some kind of “reality,” that we are free to accept or reject every form of received wisdom and, even more that we are personally responsible to make these choices and by these choices to give our own stamp to reality and take our own stand for all of humankind about the kind of world we ought to be creating.

As important as these insights were—as empowering as they were to me as a young man trying to find the strength to choose to align myself with the idealistic aspirations of the movements of the 60’s and take the risk of rejecting the class destiny to which I was bound by the erotic ties of family loyalty and devotion—Sartre himself came to realize that they were skewed and limited by the liberal individualism of his own upbringing; these early insights illuminated the world from within the pathos and solitude and psycho-spiritual struggles and relative material privilege of the floating or unanchored bourgeois intellectual. Thus his early philosophical understanding of “relations with Others” as elaborated in Being and Nothingness and in his early plays reflected the Fear of the Other that he came to see later as the unconscious foundation of “individualism” itself. To the early Sartre, the Other is mainly a threat whose gaze “steals my freedom” by pinning me in an image-for-the-Other that is colored with pride or shame and from which I must recover myself as a free being through a kind of ontological struggle, a struggle captured in the famous concluding line from No Exit: “Hell is Other People.”  In many ways, as radical as Sartre’s early ideas were in rejecting the conformity of inauthentic social life and its mores, roles, and hierarchies, they remained quite consistent with the aspect of liberal Western society that defined “man” as a free being inherently separate from and in conflict with the freedom of the Other—no doubt one reason that his “existentialism” is today taught in every liberal university while his later conversion to Marxism and social commitment and his brilliant reconciliation of the insights of existentialism with those of Marxism are almost nowhere to be studied and learned.

That later integration began to take place when Sartre served in the French army in World War II and through his conscription began to grasp that he was involuntarily bound to others by social forces much larger than the mainly two-person interactions that he was in those very years exploring in his philosophy, and his deepening awareness of the inherently social nature of each individual’s existence was accelerated by the encounter that every serious intellectual had with Marxism and its “really existing” embodiment in the Soviet Union following World War II.  But in spite of the sympathy that Sartre had for the Soviet Union’s egalitarian ideal in the face of McCarthyism and the increasingly reactionary cast of western capitalism in the early 1950’s, he knew that the Soviet Union was grossly distorted manifestation of Marxist ideals and that its distortions were in no small part the result of the limitations of the state of Marxist theory itself—indeed, of its very failure to give sufficient ontological priority to the subjective, qualitative experience of actual human relations that was the central concern of his own work.  Thus he felt it fell to him as a kind of moral responsibility to throw himself into showing how Marxism had become false to its own human aspirations by the hyper-objectivity of its own pseudo-scientific theory, how its transformation from a culturally complex and human historical materialism into a mechanistic and externalized “dialectical materialism” had led it to rationalize a new form of class society and social oppression as if it were a near-messianic embodiment of social progress.

Published in 1960, Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason was an effort to show that while Marxism was correct in giving primacy to materialism—to the need for food, clothing, and shelter as being the key shaping force that had thus far connected all humans to each other and mediated their relationships to one another in a milieu of material scarcity and the struggle for survival—it had to incorporate into itself the relatively independent longing for human freedom and the transcendence of the inter-subjective and distinctively social facts of oppression, exploitation, and alienation of self from other to accurately understand and portray the truth of social life and offer a path to improving it.  In this later philosophical work and in his later plays like The Devil and the Good Lord and The Condemned of Altona as well as several volumes of essays and a three-volume biographical study of Flaubert, Sartre replaced his earlier emphasis on the “man alone” struggling for freedom and authenticity with the social individual bound to all living others through the necessities of economic production and also to prior generations through the medium of the world of “worked matter” that we have inherited from them and which directs and limits our possible forward motion.  In place of the floating and unanchored individual seeking to recover his or her authentic being from the inauthenticity of a fallen society living in bad faith and in flight from itself through a kind of ubiquitous personal and moral inadequacy, Sartre makes a powerful and original argument for a collective, intersubjective, distinctively social recovery of our authentic human capacities through the “praxis” of collective action to transcend class society and the alienating reciprocal conditioning through which we have enslaved ourselves and each other to dehumanizing socio-economic forces over which no one has control.

John Gerassi’s new book Talking with Sartre is a transcription of a fascinating series of interviews conducted with Sartre by Gerassi over the period from 1970-74, just as Sartre himself was coming to question whether his own later theory of existential Marxism was adequate to either offer a new path to human liberation for the Left or account for the extraordinary dynamics that had been sweeping the world in the form of “the 60’s” during the previous decade.  Gerassi, the son of longtime family friends of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and already an established independent left intellectual in his late 40’s at the time of these interviews, serves as a comradely inquisitor of Sartre. The great philosopher was approaching his 70th birthday and could not but see the shortcomings of the social movements of the 60’s beginning to manifest themselves in historically decisive ways. The interviews are in a certain sense a first-person evaluation of the state of the Left world-wide, as they reflect Sartre’s thoughts on his own visits to the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Castro’s Cuba, as well as his own participation in the radical groups in France—in particular the gauche proleterienne whose newspaper, La Cause du Peuple, Sartre had become the editor of.

To readers of Tikkun who today are working toward the creation of a spiritual-political progressive movement, the most important sections of the book deal with Sartre’s evaluation of his own ideas about how we are to overcome the social alienation that at the time of these interviews and still today seems to separate us from each other and disable us from banding together to create a more loving, egalitarian, solidaristic world. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre had developed two important ideas that remain relevant to us to day as we try to build a new movement and understand the psycho-social dynamics that inhibit our efforts.   One is the idea of “seriality”—the idea that when we are thrown by socio-economic forces into relationships based on competition for survival and are conditioned by the weight of historical traditions and social ideologies to accept our situation as necessary and even desirable, we each become stuck in a kind of social quicksand in which other people seem to be constantly receding away from us like threads in an inside-out shirt and in which we ourselves each become “one of the others” to each receding other, collectively casting one another into a mutually distancing, one-and-one separation that we can’t seem to get out of. Whether we are languishing in the passive rituals of family life, or passing each others with blank gazes on the street, or carrying out the repetitive routines of work in offices or on assembly lines, when we are trapped in the one-and-one “series”, we exist as passive occupiers of social slots without a common active or creative purpose that unites us in any sort of original collective project:  We cannot seem to translate our longing for vitalizing social connection into any form of meaningful action that would allow us to recover our spontaneity and freedom. A key question for Sartre in the Critique had been what form of collective action was possible through which we could manage to lift ourselves out of this self-reproducing separation that actually was the central dynamic reproducing capitalism itself, an anti-human system that we all feel trapped in as if it were coming from “outside” us, like a non-human force over which we have no control.

Sartre’s answer to this question in the Critique had been that under certain favorable conditions combining the right material circumstances with the right spark of cultural (or countercultural) inspiration and also the irreducible power of human freedom exerting itself against its own self-reproducing constraints, human beings could break through reciprocal imprisonment of “the series” to form what he called “the fused group”—a movement toward mutual freedom and solidarity would overwhelm the external conditioning that renders us passive, atomized, anonymous (in the sense of lacking in authentic presence and lost in robotic roles and routines), and interchangeable. Drawing on the inspiration of revolutionary historical moments such as the seizures of the Bastille and the Winter Palace, the rebellion of the Kronstadt sailors, and the spontaneous sit-down strikes through which workers during the labor movement suddenly reclaimed their own sense of collective power and agency from the factory machines and their owner-operators that had turned them into passive objects, Sartre’s description of the emergence of the group coming into fusion provides a social- ontological and intersubjective foundation for the possibility of transformative social change that goes beyond the external categories of much of social theory—for example the external category of “class struggle” within the history of Marxist theory itself which could not account for how the revolutionary class would recover its agency as a living social process.  And Sartre’s new concept prefigured exactly what would take place five to ten years later during the upsurge of the 60’s, when human beings (like myself) who had been trapped in the passivity and distance of our socially separated and artificial lives, would emerge into authentic groups in which our essential Presence to each other could suddenly become visible, and through which we could generate an extraordinary, social energy that could “move” into a movement, ricocheting invisibly but decisively from Berkeley, to Mexico City, to Prague, to the general strike of Paris ’68.

The social paralysis of being trapped in and of being an unwitting agent of “the series”, and the always potential transformation of the series into the group-in-fusion through which we can overcome our alienation and recover our reciprocal presence to one another as Here and as One (or as “the common individual” in Sartre’s terms)—these are very important ideas that Sartre has contributed to establishing the link between the transformation of spirit and the egalitarian and ecological transformation of the material world.  But as Gerassi brings out in his interviews, there was something essential that was lacking in these later formulations that was becoming apparent in the world itself in the early 70’s—in the very decay and gradual dissolution of the movements of the 60’s that was beginning to take place at the time of the interviews and that is palpable in them.  In one key exchange, Sartre has been describing as a kind of illustrative mini-example of the group-in-fusion a bus ride in which a group of bus passengers who had previously been merely a disconnected series, a line of people waiting for the bus at the bus stop, had transformed themselves into a fused group by persuading the driver to go off his normal route and to drop each of them at their destinations, which in turn leads to the able-bodied passengers taking pleasure in assisting an old woman in a wheelchair to get off the bus and get into her home, and to an overall atmosphere of joy and free conversation erupting into the dead space where there had previously been merely a collection of anonymous strangers. Gerassi responds by saying, in effect, that’s that’s all well and good, but those passengers will inevitably go home and the next day they’ll be back in line, the weight of historical forces will again overwhelm and condition them, and their hot moment will go cold—just as the sans-culottes of the French revolution returned their power to the elites and lost their transformative energy, just as Paris Commune had failed to sustain itself, and just as the youth of the 60’s were seeing their groups dissolve into internal squabbles or get coopted by the political parties or become overwhelmed, as we would say in Tikkun, by the legacy of generations of Fear of the Other that is more powerful than the momentary unity made possible by the moment of fusion.  “To avoid defeat the group-in-fusion must remain in fusion, “says Gerassi: “But how?…If the group-in-fusion is always bound to fail, no matter how much of a residue it leaves around the edges for historians to contemplate, why risk starting it again?”

It is difficult to read these words and not feel that this is exactly the world-wide dilemma of the present moment, that because of the failures of prior social movements and the defeats or distortions of the fused groups that these movements were formed by and inspired, we are unable to risk starting it again and to surrender to the radical hope that this requires of us without a new step in theory to guide and express some new form of social practice.  Sartre’s own answer to Gerassi is that the process is not circular or hopelessly repetitive, that each such transformative experience is internalized as a historical memory that is passed on, however silently in the culture and moves the ball forward and furthers the liberatory development of humanity.  But even if there is some hope and validity to be found in that response, it seems clear to me that the Sartre of the early 1970’s could not yet have grasped that his own thinking was inherently limited by the secular nature of his own conditioning, by his failure to realize that the breakthrough permitted by the fused group can only truly be sustained if it is accompanied by a distinctly spiritual elevation of the heart that requires other another and deeper form of communal self-recovery than is conveyed by the idea of the revolution, the rebellion,  the instantaneous and sudden rupture of the artifice of the status quo.  What is needed is a theory and practice of human connection that has sufficient spiritual depth to gradually heal the Fear of the Other that has been installed in our hearts by the shocks of our generational and personal conditioning and to elevate the fused group into a beloved community. Sartre helped us by showing that we are always connected even when imagine we are most separated and that by turning toward each other in meaningful, life-giving social action we can become the source of each other’s completion.  When will we have gone far enough beyond his formulations to actually take the next decisive steps toward this redemptive end to “risk starting it again”?

–Peter Gabel

Peter Gabel is former President and Professor of Law at New College of California and is Associate Editor of Tikkun magazine. He is also Co-Director with Nanette Schorr of the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics.

This piece was first published in the September/October issue of Tikkun magazine. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.

One thought on “THE SPIRIT OF SARTRE

  1. I think this is a wonderful account of Sartre’s journey out of middle-class intellectual individualism, but I’m enough of a Sartre nerd to want to point out that “Hell is other people” is not the concluding line of “No Exit.” It ends with Garcin’s line “Well, well… let’s get on with it,” which works as a kind of statement of resignation from which we as audience members are meant to recoil.




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