Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Talking with Sartre

It's not often that somebody will recommend a philosophy book because it is "a lot of fun," but that's exactly how Bill Martin piqued my interest in John Gerassi's Talking with Sartre (Yale, 2009). And I must say that I agree with his verdict.

The book is comprised of a series of interviews from November 1970 to November 1974 that were intended to provide the basis for Gerassi's authorized biography. The first (and only) volume of the biography, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century, got as far as the 1940s, and then stopped, leaving, of course, the rest of Sartre's century.

Talking with Sartre returns to the sources of the biography, which are Sartre's often unguarded conversations with Gerassi, who is the son of Fernando Gerassi, a militant, painter, and friend of Sartre. It begins with Sartre's recollections from his childhood and adolescent years, but quickly becomes a long conversation about politics, as Gerassi challenges and prods Sartre to explain the relationship between his work and his activism (and a few asides about Sartre's personal relationships with the various women around him). Gerassi, we can see, has a good time needling Sartre on his interminable work on the Flaubert volumes, and they argue repeatedly as to whether de Gaulle is the reactionary charlatan that Sartre says he is. Not surprisingly, for somebody who will eventually call Sartre the hated conscience of his century, Gerassi focuses on how Sartre's philosophy became politically committed toward collective organization. However, the discussion is less about theory than it is about activism. The book does not delve to far into Sartre's theory and its variations over time, but rather his biography. While I certainly enjoyed the book and found it fun, it is a bit short on the theory side.

The loosely chronological organization of the book takes on a narrative quality as the interviews draw to a close. I don't know how much this has to do with the editing (Gerassi mentions that he has moved some of the discussions around and omitted parts; it's an edited volume and not a critical edition...), but it is nevertheless of some interest. When the interviews begin, we see a post-1968 Sartre with full confidence in political change, that it is not so far in the future, but by the final interviews in late 1973 and 1974, both Gerassi and Sartre are much more prepared to take the long view of revolution rather than the immediate one. They start talking about theory again, about the coup in Chile, about the professionalization and the 'career oriented' transformation of the 1968 generation (and Gerassi voices repeated reservations about Benny Lévy/Pierre Victor). In general, they are trying to address the retreat of the left as a political force, which, in many ways, remains our own horizon. Gerassi's wager is that Sartre still has something to say to us as we seek to revive radicalism in order to confront the constant destruction of capitalism.

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