Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates

Reviewed by Howard

John Gerassi, editor and translator, Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009)

From the imaginary “crabs” which haunted him in his earlier years to his belief that the US was more capable of starting a nuclear war than the Soviet Union, these conversations with Sartre by John Gerassi attempt to pin down the elusive philosopher, writer and political activist. Between 1970 and 1974, Gerassi, who knew Sartre from the time he was a child, talked with Sartre about a wide variety of topics including how he became politicized, the French resistance, the subsequent Cold War conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, and his resistance to colonialism in Asia, Africa and Latin America. And yet through all these conversations with Gerassi we only catch glimpses of how Sartre’s philosophical ideas, his personal life and his political activism catalyzed each other. It is up to the readers of this book to develop their own insights into the confluence of these elements. I would have wanted Gerassi to provide us with some direction to make this task easier. Gerassi’s questions about Sartre’s literary ambitions, his education, and his attitude toward the Resistance and to French left politics after 1968 begin the conversations promisingly, but do not ultimately satisfy me with the insights they provide. Perhaps the closeness of the two men blunted the search between them for a deeper understanding. Gerassi’s biography in dialogue is somewhat scattershot; many of Sartre’s answers to his questions only hint at the complexity of the ideas and situations he is responding to. Sartre, a formidable intellectual, emerges from these exchanges as a combative person, prone to self-doubt, adept at deflecting questions that don’t interest him, but at times willing to change his views.

In Talking with Sartre Gerassi gets Sartre to briefly discuss his Critique of Dialectical Reason. From the effort to focus on individual self-definition in Being and Nothingness to his effort at reconciling Marxism and Existentialism in Critique of Dialectical Reason, we see Sartre move from a philosophy of individualism to one which he sought to describe the collective connection of individuals in an ongoing dialectical interaction. Gerassi offers an illuminating example of a coming together, which Sartre applauds, in his story of a group of alienated workers who commandeer an “out of service” New York City bus to take them individually to their destinations. In the process, the passengers bond and “a whole new conception of life” is born. Sartre sees this as a wonderful collective example similar to that of the Cultural Revolution in China: “They believe that people must make all decisions that affect their lives” (95). But Gerassi does not press Sartre to extend the range of examples.

Under his rubric of self-actualization, freedom of choice is paramount for Sartre. As he tells Gerassi, “We were never as free as during the [Nazi] occupation,” in that “we had very clearly defined choices to fight back one way or another or to collaborate. In those times our freedom defined our choices perfectly” (265). Gerassi characterizes Sartre as an anarchist and Sartre replies: “You have to understand my anarchism, as you call it, was really an expression of freedom… the freedom of a writer” (45).

Sartre discusses his falling out with Camus occasioned by Francis Jeanson’s caustic review of The Rebel in Les Temps Modernes, claiming that he did not edit a word of Jeanson’s text. It is disingenuous of Sartre to imply, however, that he had nothing to do with generating the review. Camus addressed his rebuttal to “Monsieur le directeur des Temps Modernes,” and Sartre said he had to answer, “and that destroyed our friendship.” Gerassi comments: “It was a first rate response. It made the point so well, without saying it, that we are determined by what we do. Camus, by not taking sides on the Algerian question, was therefore, in my mind, pro-French Algeria, opposed to independence” (68). But was Sartre getting back at Camus for his intransigent moral stance on other issues, for instance the internal terror perpetrated by the Soviet Union which he strongly focuses on in The Rebel, which Sartre felt was undermined by his not taking a clear cut position for Algerian independence? I believe there is more to this issue than Gerassi chooses to unveil.

When Gerassi read from the book and answered questions at Revolution Books in New York in December 2009, he was asked to talk more about the differences between Sartre and Camus. He pointed to Camus’s Sisyphus who pushes the rock up the hill again and again, repeating the same action though it is absurd. He said that Sartre, by contrast, would try to do something and, if it failed, would try another approach. For instance, he supported the communist Soviet Union over the capitalistic western nations during the Cold War in spite of the terrors of the Gulag which he knew. At that time, Sartre rejected the idea of a moral judgment in regard to the terror of the Soviet state. Camus responded: “At the world peace conference (organized by the Soviet Union) where you spoke so eloquently, the doves perched on the gallows.” Sartre saw the Soviet Union as the lesser of two evils, a country, which economically and militarily could not afford to start an atomic war. He said the United States was more likely to start a nuclear war against the Soviet Union and felt he had to choose between the two sides in the Cold War, and did. Several years later he changed his views. In The Ghost of Stalin, he severely criticized the Soviets for their suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and he subsequently denounced their 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Gerassi prods Sartre to talk about May 1968. His responses are probably the most interesting part of the book. Sartre was one of the few French intellectuals to support the student rebellion against De Gaulle’s government and its hegemonic policies. Many of the other intellectuals of Sartre’s generation were put off by the anarchistic activities of the students – their taking over the universities and their militant marches through the streets of Paris. When Sartre attempted to speak to the students he was booed by them as were other intellectuals. Unlike the others, however, Sartre came out in support of the student rebellion. But when the GP (Gauche Prolétarienne), made up of students and workers, passed up an opportunity to take power, preferring to remain a grassroots opposition, Sartre was disillusioned and withdrew his support.

Gerassi sometimes tries to highlight differences between himself and Sartre even though he agrees with Sartre on most issues. Sartre’s idea of “man’s project,” the existential creation of the self by the individual, seems to clash with his Marxist analysis of dialectical class struggle and the alienation of individual workers from their jobs. On this issue highlighted by Gerassi, Sartre concedes a major point about his effort to link Marxism and Existentialism which Gerassi had challenged years before, when he was a university student. Sartre says: “To the amazement of all assembled, you ended up saying: Impossible, you cannot link Marxism with the Existentialist notion of ‘project,’ and went on to explain why. You were right. I never did” (44).

In their last interview in November 1974, six years before his death, Sartre tells Gerassi: “Action is what carries life, only action. I cannot do anything against the given; that is my human condition. The alienation I can and must fight.… And to dealienate my life must be as part of a collective” (268). Sartre’s belief that the individual writer must be actively engaged in society and work collectively for change is clearly manifest in this statement.

Gerassi’s Talking with Sartre is an uneven but provocative trip through the mind and life of one of the most important intellectual figures of the past century. It encourages us to read (or reread) Sartre’s own writings to get a more complete picture of his ideas in relation to his personal experiences. His dictum that “existence is prior to essence” – that each individual is responsible for his or her actions – is as important today as when he first articulated it.

Existentialism deals with human interactions and is not a cold calculating prescription for moral correctness. Sartre is not just an Olympian philosopher, but a thinker who attempted to bring philosophical discourse into our everyday society through his plays, stories and philosophical studies. This agenda is reflected in his conversations with Gerassi. Thought and praxis came together in Sartre’s ongoing search to live an authentic life.

Howard Pflanzer playwright (Living With History: Camus, Sartre, De Beauvoir); Department of Communication and Theatre Arts John Jay College, CUNY