Thursday, March 17, 2005

Sartre, the "Role Model" and "Ethical Compass"

To admirers of Sartre, though, what remains is perhaps more important. Conceding that Sartre's image was still not fixed, Annie Cohen-Solal, author of a well-received biography of Sartre, said she preferred to view him more as "a role model, a way of doing things, than a doctrine or a body of work." And as such, she added, he remains "an ethical compass."

Michel Winock, co-author of the Dictionary of French Intellectuals, said Sartre's "taste for the subversive" led him to both political misjudgments and positions which to this day appear legitimate. As for what survives of Sartre, Winock told Le Nouvel Observateur: "I would say above all his moral coherence: his absolute refusal to be resigned in the face of injustice."

Thus concludes Alan Riding's article on Jean-Paul Sartre, "the existentialist philosopher, the political activist whose positions frequently changed and the intellectual celebrity who won headlines as a Left Bank ambassador to the likes of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito".

While Sartre was wrong on a number of issues (being a fellow traveler of the French Communist Party and supporting French Maoists), the International Herald Tribune writer says, on other issues (colonialism, Vietnam) he was right on the money.

What I retain mostly from Sartre, though, is this: the "role model" never wavered in his opposition to Uncle Sam and capitalism (plus ça change…); and "the ethical compass" who refused "to be resigned in the face of injustice" never seems to have been very vocal when the protest would put himself in an uncomfortable situation — i.e., the existentialist did not make use of "the only thing that permits a man to live" when, and where, it mattered most.


Sartre tried to explain his thought in simple phrases. "Existentialism defines man through his action." "The only thing that permits a man to live is the act." "A man engages in his life, defines his profile and, outside this profile, he is nothing." Put simply, every human being determines his or her destiny.

It followed that Sartre, for one, should be politically engaged, although, until the liberation of Paris in Aug. 1944, this had not been his posture. He played no role in the turbulent politics of France's 1930s. He visited Berlin in late 1933 and did not recognize the Nazi menace. And after a few months as a prisoner of war, he cheerfully he put on plays and published books in German-occupied Paris.

And while we are on the subject of Vietnam (you will remember that the war was "won" by "the Vietnamese", by "the people of Vietnam"), Bill Bainbridge has this:

When 600 overseas Vietnamese landed at Ho Chi Minh City's airport on Jan. 23, they were welcomed by an official delegation and a phalanx of eager young volunteers who insisted on carrying their bags for them.

It was a far cry from the way most of them left the country in the 1970s, on leaky boats and being cursed as traitors by the government in Hanoi. …

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