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Clive James on Sartre

All one needs to know about the goggle-eyed gulag lover: This perversity—and he was perverse, whether he realized it or not—made him the most conspicuous single example in the 20th century of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the … Read More

By / March 29, 2007

All one needs to know about the goggle-eyed gulag lover:

This perversity—and he was perverse, whether he realized it or not—made him the most conspicuous single example in the 20th century of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the opponents of civilization.

To this I might add that Nabokov had existentialism pegged in his review of La Nausée. It was "a fashionable brand of cafe philosophy and… for every so-called 'existentialist' one finds quite a few 'suctorialists.'"

Sometimes you could actually hear the slurping as a fitting physical concomitant of existentialist thought.

It's become the work of a moment to dismiss horrible political thinkers of the 20th century as good-for-nothing cranks, tout court. Just when you think a totalitarian style and substance have merged seamlessly into one pleasing, repulsive whole, you find, damn it, that there is a tiny germ of redemption in those you'd quite like there not to be. Ezra Pound was a fascist and a bigot and a lousy poet and an even lousier translator, but he knew talent when he saw it as an editor, which is T.S. Eliot appears in more anthologies and critical journals today. Pablo Neruda wrote odes to Stalin ("the sun and the moon") and predicted, upon the tyrant's death, that all would be well with the Soviet experiment because "Malenkov would finish [his] work." Still, Czeslaw Milosz was generous enough to say that Neruda knew the plight of impoverished Chileans better than most, and if his death galvanized a public opposition to Augusto Pinochet, then perhaps the Latin was not so easily consigned to the dustbin of history, after all.

Sartre's an altogether trickier customer for the simple fact that we already have his more salubrious twin in the postwar French tradition: Camus. This is the Hobsbawm/Orwell split in terms of continental heroism. You want glamour? Check out the bookjacket photo of the author of L'etranger: that trench coat, those dark-circles under the eyes, that cigarette dangling from the lips. (Clive James said he got into the business of writing just so he could one day embody this incandescent cool.) You want moral courage and honesty? Camus said he opposed French imperialism in his homeland of Algeria, but that wasn't enough to make him forget about his beloved mama when the NLF took to the streets…. You want resistance? Combat did more to excise the intellectual rot of Nazism than all of Sartre's go-nowhere colloquies in the "underground." And when it came time to say goodbye to all that and repudiate Stalinism for what it was, Camus witnessed for the virtues of humane liberalism, prefiguring the next wave of great anti-ideology philosophes like Raymond Aron and, yes, Bernard Henri-Levy.

No Exit was a groundless fear of a debased and compromised mind: the exit was merely another man.

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