On a Certain (Anguished?) “Public Intellectual”

Late October, 1945 – Jean Paul Sartre clears his way to the stage with an axe, reaching his lectern to deliver what would become the first appearance of the so-called Public Intellectual. His defense of Existentialism that evening, ironically self-described as an argument “for philosophers and specialists,” now exists in print as perhaps the most accessible introduction to a modern philosophical worldview by a founding participant and theorist.

Whatever critical garbage was thrown at Sartre (and there was a lot, from every direction), all in attendance could agree that something strange had transpired post-delivery: the discussion surrounding the event was not simply an “inside matter.” Professional intellectuals had their share to say, sure, but the average Parisian had jumped into the discussion, opening a public arena for serious philosophical debate. It signaled the birth of a new intellectual phenomenon, one that may, without condescension, be difficult for most Americans to understand or picture. I mean, when’s the last time you saw serious media coverage of a philosopher appear before an enthusiastic crowd of…. ok, well there’s that. But you know – it’s a strange bird, and “major” is used loosely here. I wouldn’t bet that the correct pronunciation of “Zizek” is recognized by even, say… half a percentage of the American population (with a large intersection among 20-something bearded white dudes who roast their own coffee).

With the possible exception of Noam Chomsky and, to a lesser extent, the late Howard Zinn, Americans have never had a widely known left-leaning intellectual personality (not that I would ascribe as much to Noam, after whom an experimental linguistic lab chimp was named). Ask high school students today if they’re familiar, let alone have read, anything by Z Magazine‘s poster boy and it’s blanks around the room. Not so among the French: “Philosopher” is understood as a civic occupation where someone like Henri-Bernard Levy can play something like a consultative role to the executive of French imperialism. As for cultural impact among youth, I imagine Foucault and Serge Gainsbourg have about the same recognition, which says a lot against possible comparisons in the US (uh… Zinn and Naked Raygun maybe?).

Ok-The-Public-Intellectual-So-What? That’s not why I re-read “Existentialism is a Humanism” after collecting 10 years worth of dust, a self-published pamphlet run by my buddy Jake well before Yale’s fancy print (we could only get it on Marxists.org). After all, I don’t seriously believe that its appearance created the historical possibility of the Public Intellectual, but it’s worth exploring whether its content and tenets created a theme in philosophical thought that could organically grow into a socially popular worldview (which, I believe, it may become once again in this country).

So let’s go back to October 29, 1945. Waddling up to the stage, Mr. Sartre begins rattling off a series of slogan-like punchlines that would become convenient points of possession for opponents and adherents alike:

Existence precedes Essence! 

Without God, everything is Possible!

Man simply is!

Something something something a soldier and his mother!

The Christians would say, “oh, this twat! He believes in nothing!” Devout mothers and fathers shivering scared that Simone and Mr. Sartre would seduce their virginal daughters into a much more pleasurable interpersonal experience than the Confessional. Members of the French Communist (so-called) Party went into a tizzy – “but it’s anti-materialist! You deny solidarity!” That night they would scratch holes into their heads figuring out what differences comrade Stalin’s notion of “freedom” would have with the strange little lazy-eyed man’s. Then there were the people who immediately became enamored with the arguments, sucking in comforting hot air of deliverance from ideologies, dogma and the moral uncertainties of preceding years. Human freedom seemed imminent.

I’m interpreting a bit, but after Sartre went through his basic defenses, addressing the Communist and Christian differences as the “atheist representative” of contemporary Existentialism, the rest of the lecture goes something like this:

La guerre est finie.

It’s your life to live.

You’re responsible now.

Doesn’t that feel nice?

Well it shouldn’t, you wretched little lying fuck! You’re supposed to be sitting in a corner with your head on your knees, anguished nearly to death that your life could’ve gone in any 8 billion directions but you chose to become a goddamn street sweeper. Anybody can become anything! Don’t you understand that – the human is universal!

Right right right right right right! Critics have identified Sartre’s attempt here to shoulder up a little to the Communists in the room. I can see how someone might argue that – and I wouldn’t deny it, given what I know about Sartre’s political history. But even among Stalinists, his examples, which dealt with the future of the Russian Revolution (Sartre was not, it’s important to note, unequivocally committed to its defense) or of trade unionists having to choose between Christian organizations over the PCF (but he didn’t advise which side to take!) seemed rather right wing. And despite all the “it’s not bourgeois, I swear” defensiveness – thou doth protest too much, Mr. Sartre – the delivery essentially came across as a series of empty tautologies for a mainly middle class audience with a little too much time to contemplate liberation than actually fight for concrete demands on the street. Not a good look to a youthful Communist crowd that had just suffered the depredations of an inter-Imperialist war.

Lots of talk, Mr. Sartre, but I’m afraid your philosophy will have its proper historical place in films about privileged European art crit… Oh, wait! That’s my previous post…

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