Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century.
Polity Press. 536 pages. $29.95

Back in the 1960s, or even early seventies, if you asked the average intelligent person to name a philosopher, the answer would as likely have been Jean-Paul Sartre as it would have been Aristotle or Plato. “The Pope of Existentialism,” as people called him, enjoyed household-name status. By the time of his death in 1980, however, Sartre’s star had already darkened; the 50,000 mourners who shuffled after his casket to Montparnasse cemetery in Paris represented a last flare from his vanishing fame, not a sign of real influence. Structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, colonial studies — as new radical enthusiasms swept through Paris and through the Western academy, existentialism came for many to seem a mere footnote in the history of twentieth-century thought. Who still took seriously The Critique of Dialectical Reason or even Being and Nothingness and Nausea?

For Bernard-Henri Lévy, contemporary France’s leading public intellectual and a major media star, this neglect of Sartre’s thought and literature is a significant mistake. In fact, he argues in Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (first published to acclaim in France in 2000 and now translated in this English-language edition by Andrew Brown), Sartre’s work is “the meeting point of all the ways of getting through the twentieth century, getting lost in it, avoiding its dark and slippery slopes — and all the ways of setting it off, now, into the new century.” Plunging into that work once again, Lévy claims, will help protect us against future threats to human liberty. Lévy’s thick book — a kind of intellectual biography cum philosophical meditation — vigorously defends the man he calls “the absolute intellectual.”

Lévy is right about the need to read Sartre, but his admiration is misplaced. What Sartre actually offers us is a paradigmatic example of the leftist mind, in all its dodgy enthusiasms. Sartre’s early existentialism presents a nihilistic conception of human freedom that still informs some forms of liberal thought; his later political writings seethe with the pathologies of the far left, including an admiration for bloodletting, so long as it targets democrats and capitalists and Westerners generally. Sartre may indeed have been “the absolute intellectual,” but only in a negative sense: His oeuvre stands as an absolute warning about the wrong turns that moral and political thought can take when untethered from nature or any sense of reality. Were Sartre alive today, he doubtless would place the blame for September 11 and Palestinian suicide bombings on their victims — defending, as he frequently did, the indefensible.


Jean-paul sartre was born in Paris in June 1905 into a bourgeois family. His mother, born Anne Marie Schweitzer, was a relative of the Christian missionary, theologian, and musician Albert Schweitzer; his father, Jean-Baptiste, was a military officer who died in 1906. After Jean-Baptiste’s death, Sartre’s mother returned to live with the Schweitzers. Her father, Charles, became Sartre’s nominal père. In his 1963 autobiography Words, Sartre described his childhood as introverted and lonely, blaming Charles Schweitzer for keeping him away from other kids — though he never lacked for love.

Revealingly, Words ends at Sartre’s twelfth year, when his mother remarried an engineer, Joseph Mancy. Sartre revered his mother, and Lévy — rightly, I believe — suggests that her remarriage was a trauma from which he never fully recovered. Sartre and his followers would later toss around the word “engineer” as a term of ultimate opprobrium. When Mancy later died, Sartre took in his mother, and they shared an apartment for much of his adult life.

Sartre may have been a lonely mama’s boy, but he dazzled academically and won entry in 1924 to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, France’s premier institute of higher learning for literature and philosophy. Ironically, in 1928, he failed the Agrégation de philosophie needed for a teaching career. He took the test again the next year, however, and finished first — just ahead of Simone de Beauvoir, the “Beaver,” who became his intellectual companion and lifelong lover and partner (albeit a far from exclusive one). Soon he was teaching in Le Havre, an unfashionable French seaport. He longed for fame and Paris café life, but he still had to wait.

Sartre’s writing career took off with the publication in 1938 of the disturbing novel Nausea, followed the next year by a collection of short stories, The Wall, and in 1943 by the massive philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness. During this period of surging productivity, which also included writing for the theater, Sartre did a stint in the French military (in a non-combat meteorological section, due to near blindness in his left eye), spent a year or so as a German prisoner of war following the swift French defeat, and, after his release in August 1941 (the Nazis saw him as a harmless civilian), returned to occupied Paris, where he taught philosophy at the Lycée Condorcet.

From his nestled corner of the Café Flore, where, when not teaching, he could usually be found drinking tea and scribbling furiously, Sartre did next to nothing for the Resistance while watching his writings win acclaim and his plays enjoy throngs of admirers.

He never actively collaborated with the German occupation authorities — Lévy defends him convincingly on that score — but his relatively cushy wartime experience did later draw the ire of writer and Gaullist minister André Malraux. “I was facing the Gestapo,” grumbled Malraux, “while Sartre in Paris had his plays produced with the authorization of the German censors.”


It is the writing of this early Sartre that Lévy so esteems — he calls it “a shock, an event, a tremor, torrent, a tidal wave.” The worldview that runs through all of Sartre’s work of this period, soon dubbed “existentialism,” based itself on several key themes. The first was the purported Death of God and the meaninglessness of existence. Sartre’s protagonist in the hallucinatory Nausea, Antoine Roquentin, laments the “total gratuity and absurd contingency of the universe.” “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance,” Roquentin says, struggling against a powerful urge to vomit. Lévy sums up this bleak Sartrean vision of man adrift: “Life has no meaning. . . . No promise dwells in it. No invisible hand is guiding it in secret. It is chaotic. Shapeless. Pure disorder and fog. A tangle of moments in disarray. Chaos. A mess.”

Roquentin overcomes his dread and disgust only by recognizing what he deems to be the liberating possibilities for the individual consciousness of a contingent universe. “All is free,” he resolves: We can create our own meanings, our own right and wrong, our own futures, our own multiplicity of selves. Roquentin meditates on an American jazz song he loves — “Some of These Days” — and imagines a musician in a New York apartment finding his reason for living in composing it. “Why not me?” he then asks himself, and concludes that he, too, will create something to triumph over contingency: He will write a novel.

Man’s freedom of will — another central theme of the early Sartre — is what makes such creative acts possible. Drawing on German and French philosophical sources — Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson, among others — Sartre explained that human beings, unlike, say, oak trees and snakes, choose their own future, even when, trapped in “bad faith,” they pretend they do not. Man has no nature that predetermines what he will eventually become; his existence precedes his essence, as the Sartrean formulation puts it.

One problem this choosing self runs up against is how to regard other choosing selves. A third existentialist motif, best summed up in Sartre’s famous phrase “Hell is other people,” shows how Sartre understood that problem. Few writers have ever offered a nastier depiction of human interaction, as Lévy underscores: “[Sartre] cannot imagine any encounter between consciousnesses which does not immediately and definitively turn into a bout of fisticuffs.” Friendship? Just mutual exploitation. Love? Simply what Sartre calls pursuing “the death of the Other.” Sex? Always a kind of violence, at least in part.

Lévy finds in the thinking of this “first Sartre” a potent weapon against Utopianism — and hence against the totalitarian temptation. That is a stretch, to say the least. If the universe is pointless and morals and values simply something we make up as we go along — hypotheses asserted by Sartre but never proven — then why should one free choice matter more than another? The life of an evil brute becomes as worthy as a life dedicated to alleviating suffering. More: Why should freedom itself matter, if Sartre is right? Why not surrender our will to the baying mob? The existentialist has no principled answers to such questions — any more than do relativistic contemporary liberals, who share the Sartrean belief that we make up our own values. Sartre the existentialist is in one sense the unacknowledged father of Richard Rorty, who also believes that contingency goes “all the way down.”

As for Sartre’s description of human interaction as a war of egos, it expands what is worst within men and women into the overriding law of life. It fails to capture the love we have for our children and spouses or to do justice to the real friendships we forge with others and the commitments we make to church and country and shared projects. In the words of the Italian political philosopher Rocco Buttiglione, the agonistic world Sartre depicts is — precisely from an existential point of view — “unbearable and unlivable.” It is significant, I think, that Sartre never married or committed himself exclusively to Beauvoir, disliked children and sired none of his own, regularly broke off friendships, and in general spent most of his time worshiping at his own altar. He was — to use his own language — a bit of a “bastard.” But even the father of atheist existentialism could be generous with the wealth his books’ sales and commissions brought him and reached out to help friends. Even he launched shared projects, including the magazine Les Temps Modernes, still going strong today, more than a half-century after its first issue debuted.


After the war, Sartre, now a celebrity, grew radically politicized and transformed into something of a Marxist — an engagé intellectual. Lévy describes how Sartre’s year as a prisoner of war, where he “swooned with pleasure” amid the muck and degradation of camp life, rubbing shoulders with unvarnished “humanity,” led him to embrace the communitarian — and ultimately totalitarian — politics that characterized his postwar work. But Lévy never explains why, if Sartre’s early libertarian thought supposedly inoculates us against totalitarianism, the absolute intellectual could so easily become one of Marxist totalitarianism’s most steadfast defenders — a toadying to despotism that led to his famous split with Albert Camus, who had much better sense.

The reason Lévy does not is that Sartre’s thought provides no such inoculation. His existentially unbearable individualism demands to be overcome. Yet his loathing for prosaic forms of community — Nausea depicts bourgeois life as fit only for unthinking cows — encourages a quest for a community on the level of politics. Marx beckoned.

To his credit, Lévy lays out Sartre’s ugly postwar record in black and white. It makes for unsettling reading in 2003.

Returning in the early fifties from his first visit to the Soviet Union, where Stalinist minders had given the tour, Sartre proclaimed, Walter Duranty-style, that the citizen of the ussr had the “entire freedom to criticize,” indeed, that he “criticizes more and in a much more effective manner” than the French worker. He eventually admitted he knew this was a lie.

In December 1952, in Vienna, at a time of the “darkest repression” in Eastern Europe, Lévy notes, Sartre did a song and dance for the communist bosses at the annual congress of the World Movement for Peace — in other words, the Stalinist International.

Later, Sartre, accompanied by Beauvoir, took a whirlwind tour of Castro’s Cuba, led around by the nose by the Generalissimo himself. Upon his return to Paris, Sartre wrote 16 fawning portraits of Castro — the “man of the whole and the detail.” (The French publisher Gallimard is now reissuing these writings in book form, as if they had something true to tell us.)

Justifying his refusal of the Nobel Prize for literature, given to him in 1964, Sartre claimed that the award was a tainted Western prize, directed against his Eastern bloc family — a justification Lévy rightly calls a “gigantic and despicable piece of stupidity.”

Even as Sartre praised totalitarian dictators, he was describing the United States as “rabid” and Nazi-like, urging France to break off all relations with it. During the Vietnam War, he went so far as to wish for a nuclear strike on America to put an end to its imperialist tendencies. When he criticized the Soviets, as he did after they invaded Hungary in November 1956, he would denounce the bourgeois democracies in the same breath.


Sartre’s political writings and public statements now celebrated revolutionary violence. In 1952’s The Communists and Peace, he enthused about communist “mass democracy” — which achieved a unanimity “constantly renewed by the liquidation of opponents.” The anti-communist was a “dog,” he spat; like many on the left today, Sartre substituted invective for debate. In his well-known preface to Franz Fanon’s 1961 anti-colonial polemic The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre asserted that, for the black man, “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.” Historian Paul Johnson later commented: “This was an updating of existentialism: self-liberation through murder.”

By the seventies, Sartre was really nothing more than an apologist for tyranny and terror. Though Sartre opposed anti-Semitism and generally supported the Jewish cause, he defended the killing of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He found it “perfectly scandalous” that “the Munich attack should be judged by the French press and a section of public opinion as an intolerable scandal.” Like those who excuse Palestinian homicide bombings today, Sartre held that the only way the Palestinian people could “show its courage and the strength of its hatred” was by “organizing deadly attacks” against civilians. Embracing Maoism, he demanded that capitalist bosses be bled like pigs. “A revolutionary regime must get rid of a certain number of individuals that threaten it and I see no other means for this than death; it is always possible to get out of a prison; the revolutionaries of 1793 probably didn’t kill enough people,” he said.

The chief theoretical work of this “second” Sartre, The Critique of Dialectical Reason, written in a drug-fueled frenzy and first published in 1961, is one of the scariest books to come from the pen of a major twentieth century thinker. Depicting man as lost in an alienated world of institutions and social exchanges, Sartre maintains that freedom is possible only when men act collectively — and their unity should be enforced by “Terror.” The conservative British political philosopher Maurice Cranston captured Sartre’s argument in a line (it took Sartre nearly 700 pages): “Terror is the guarantee that my neighbor will stay my brother; it binds my neighbor to me by the threat of the violence it will use against him if he dares to be ‘unbrotherly.’” Forget such niceties as the rule of law.

Sartre’s political thought simply ignored the constraints and possibilities of real political life. The social theorist and conservative liberal Raymond Aron, Sartre’s old school chum from the Ecole Normale and his great intellectual rival in postwar France, had it exactly right (echoing a Tocquevillian charge against the architects of the French Revolution): Sartre was a “literary” political thinker. Sartre preferred, explained Aron, to promote “a literary image of a desirable society, rather than to study the functioning of a given economy, of a liberal economy, of a parliamentary system, and so forth,” and he refused ever to ask the question: “if you were in the minister’s position, what would you do?” The reader will find no indication in Sartre’s thousands of pages of political writings that he had even a rudimentary understanding, say, of political economy or comparative politics.

Nevertheless, faced with the contrast between Sartre’s revolutionary fantasies and Aron’s prudent wisdom, and despite Sartre’s loss of prestige, two generations of the French Left have still embraced the dictum “it is better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron” — a sentiment Lévy sometimes seems to share. Lévy slights Aron’s contributions throughout Sartre.


Sartre lost his eyesight by the late seventies and grew feeble and incontinent. He became friends and began to collaborate with a young Jew from Cairo, Benny Lévy, who used the nom de plume Peter Victor. Victor’s presence incensed the Sartrean camp, especially Beauvoir; they saw him as an interloper, leading the doddering master astray. Bernard-Henri Lévy, though, believes a third Sartre was emerging, one inspired by Jewish philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas and with a renewed commitment to freedom. No one will ever know for sure: All that this Sartre left behind, regrets Lévy, is “a phantom oeuvre, forever unrealized.”

By the time the reader reaches the end of Lévy’s book, he is left wondering, despite the author’s intention, whether there is anything in Sartre worth holding on to, apart from the negative example he offers of a mind adrift. I would say yes, though far from as enthusiastically as Lévy does. Sartre’s literary innovations — putting novelistic touches in his philosophy and philosophy in his novels — and his ambition to be creative in so many disciplines are admirable. The American writer Walker Percy claimed to have found a model for his richly philosophical novels in Sartre’s work — proving that writers who do not share Sartre’s politics can use his literary innovations.

Some of Sartre’s writings — Nausea, his unfinished novel series The Roads to Freedom, Being and Nothingness, the play No Exit — contain real, if exaggerated or distorted, insights into the human condition. Read as a description not of a permanent truth of man’s fate but of the predicament of a certain kind of modern man, one who has lost his reference points in God and nature and found nothing to replace them, they still resonate.

Yet, ultimately, most of his endless outpouring of words is today unreadable. (Sartre never shut up, as film director John Huston complained when the two worked together on a biopic of Freud and the former handed in a screenplay a million times too long to use.) One cannot help feeling that the real reason Lévy wants to reclaim Sartre is more a matter of style than substance. Lévy’s politics, unlike Sartre’s, are decent and moderate. He burst on the scene in the 1970s as the ringleader of the anti-communist “New Philosophers” (Sartre ridiculously fingered him as a cia agent); he considers himself an anti-anti-American; and he recognizes the dangers Islamism poses for the West, as one sees in his chilling bestseller Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (Melville House, 2003). But he shares Sartre’s love of the limelight. Strikingly handsome, dressed to the nines, and married to the beautiful actress Arielle Dombasle (who once guest-starred as rocker Ted Nugent’s girlfriend on an episode of Miami Vice), he jets from one global hotspot to another and is rarely off the television screen for long. Like Sartre, too, Lévy has tried his hand at multiple disciplines, from philosophy to novel writing to film direction.

In short, Lévy wants to be the absolute intellectual for the twenty-first century. He would be a big political improvement over Sartre. Yet whether we need an absolute intellectual in the first place is another matter entirely.

Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century is a very Gallic book and will annoy some readers. Lévy writes as if he is holding forth in a salon. He will mix endless sentences that pile up a dizzying number of subordinate clauses with short, breathless ones like: “Joy, again. I like this Sartrean joy.” Get past such tics and you will have much to ponder — above all how Jean-Paul Sartre, such a brilliant man, could be so stupid.

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