A Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris
It’s a place where famous personalities are buried. A renowned writer and his, if I may take the liberty of using the term, ‘soul mate’ were also interred there. Rebels throughout their lives, they challenged established norms of relationships and family. Probably, they were the most famous polyamorous couple in modern times. They felt that the ‘normal’ monogamous relationship restricted individual freedom, lovers of the concept that they were when they were alive. When the female died six years after the male’s passing away she was buried together with him. Posterity would care less for their other relationships. The grave makes us ponder the intensity of the love and respect they had for each other (that far surpassed the feelings they had for other people in their lives). That is how I shall remember Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as theorists of freedom who were bonded to each other in life and in death. Sartre said that the living choose the dead. So do we choose the images of death and give it meaning. The stone grave of Sartre and Beauvoir reminds me that love, freedom and responsibility are not empty terms, not matter how hard cynics may try to conceive of them as such. They are lifestyles.Sartre died on April 15th, 1980. Beauvoir got a nervous breakdown after that. She writes in her farewell to Sartre “I lay down for a moment by the side of his dead body, knowing that we would never meet again.” This rather sentimental and irrational act, from the author of several books that deconstructed existing ideas of gender and love, should be witness to the greatness of the person to whom it was directed at and the nature of bonding she shared with him. This testimonial of affection from the mother of feminism should melt even the coldest heart of those who claim to be ‘feminists’ in her path but are sceptical of the Beauvoir-Sartre relationship, often disparaging the latter. I don’t think either would have thought much of their ‘criticisms’ though. Sartre himself admitted that Beauvoir was “the only critic who mattered.” Indeed, his adoration and immense respect for her was such that he would discard hundreds of pages of his work should she raise objections against them. This short man who was a giant in the philosophy of ontology found his greatest strength in the company of the tallest figure of feminist thought. Their grave sends us that message.
John Gerassi called Sartre the hated conscience of his century. This was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order prohibiting the reading of any of his works in 1948. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists made two attempts on his life owing to his vocal support of the Algerian cause. Liberals like Raymond Aron and Camus, who eventually became hits in the US academia, hated his guts. Structuralists like Strauss, who stood for completely depoliticized academics, condemned him. Foucault and Derrida, the grand champions of anti-humanism, rejected Sartre. So did defenders of a kind of Marxism, that kind that believed in structures like an astrologer believes in stars, like Althusser and co. Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize in 1964 on ethical grounds also added him to the hate list of many others.
Sartre really didn’t care. He knew the intellectual-academicians and the politics that they upheld. He knew that people who treated humans like ants in their study would never take their message beyond a classroom of elites. And he was right. Imagine a mass movement or radical activism propelled by an Althusserian or Foucauldian understanding of politics. Besides, he had his own crowd too. In his heyday, Sartre’s name was popular in the costliest restaurant in Paris and in its cheapest brothel. His books were carried by students of the best universities in town and by blacks working on pavements. And wherever he was, he shocked and he stimulated. One of the foremost theorists of decolonization and identity, referred to Sartre as ‘a living god’ – probably the greatest compliment a thinker could get from a contemporary who was also his critic, an iconoclast like Frantz Fanon.
When Sartre died, his funeral was attended by about 50,000 people, probably the largest in history for a philosopher. It was attended by students, activists, intellectuals, writers and poets. Frenchmen, Germans, Blacks and Mulattos participated. The crowd contained homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, petty criminals and all those ‘abnormals’ on whom Foucault gave extensive lectures on in his career, along with large numbers of Althusser’s beloved working class. Few of these people would mourn Foucault’s or Althusser’s demise. The loss of these intellectuals was felt only in the spaces where they had created most impact – among NGO activists and academics – while the loss of Sartre’s was felt by a diverse section of people even after his political thought fell out of fashion in academic circles. That a philosopher should have left such an impact should speak volumes about the dynamism of his philosophy.
If one considers an intellectual to be someone who has written and reflected on a wide variety of complex issues, in a complex manner, then probably Foucault is the better intellectual than Sartre. One can spend years studying the works of Foucault but manage to grasp only a part of his thought. One needs to spend twenty minutes reading Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth, with something akin to a conscience, for one’s own thoughts to be radically altered. Foucault may be the better intellectual; Sartre was the better man.
And what a preface it was! A better text to claim humanity for the oppressed could not be found and a better preface could not have been written. Sartre’s words to French citizens condemning their silence on their state’s crimes in Algeria “It is not right, my fellow countrymen, you who know all the crimes committed in our name, it is really not right not to breathe a word about them to anybody, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to pass judgements on yourselves” are still as applicable to citizens of so many oppressor regimes today. Sri Lankans, Indians, Turks, Israelis, Chinese can place this statement in the right context today, provided they have an iota of sensitivity. One can see the Sartrean spirit operating through a Jude Fernando or a Viraj Mendis, Sri Lankan intellectuals who faced death threats and had to undergo exile for standing by the struggle of the Eelam Tamils. But the world that we live in now, such intellectuals who have made enormous personal sacrifices to stand by an ethical position are rarely highlighted in the news. Only the shrill-tone empty-content kind catch eyes and ears. Maybe this is somewhere connected to the general amnesia prevailing among the intelligentsia of the existence of a man called Sartre…
I have told quite some of my friends that there are no post-modern intellectuals. Only post-Sartrean intellectuals. You had those post-structuralists who talked about everything but took a position on nothing. You had those on the ‘left’ taking positions only on those issues that would give them instant attention in the media. You had those Marxists giving moral lectures on the bankruptcy of capitalism and imperialism but rarely turning a critical eye towards themselves and their own positions in society. Intellectual activity became a matter of convenience when it should have been of responsibility. Sartre, with the kind of intellectual courage that only an anarchist could possess, was never shy of making his position clear. Even should it alienate him from his fellow people. A trenchant critic of capitalism, Sartre, along with his partner, knew that socialism was meaningless without individual freedom. He realized that irrationality and emotions were as powerful forces as reason and logic in driving political movements. He gave theoretical justification to the violence of the oppressed, even if it was on identitarian lines, and acted in their support while others on the left were toying with terms or were just weak-kneed to take a stand. He had neither the comfort of a party like the communists nor the company of the elites like the liberals. As a person, he was alone but for Beauvoir. And that was his integrity.
We need to remember Sartre today. We need to remember him to remind intellectuals of their role in a world where there is such rampant oppression and few credible solutions. We need to remember him if we are ever to understand why in certain circumstances terrorism needs to be defended. We need to remember him to frame out a human and humane alternative to a world pillaged by capitalist machinery, an alternative that would not further dehumanize man under the illusion of taking him to some predestined goal. We need to remember him to make ethical choices in politics, in life and in literature.
We need to remember Sartre because we writers live in his shadow.
To his memory…