Monday, March 19, 2012

Portrait of the philosopher as an old man

I've always been drawn to the concept of a late work, and have acquired an arguably counter-productive tendency to start from the end - that is, to approach a thinker via his or her final words and then work my way backwards. I don't know why I do this, but I've found it to be highly rewarding, at least in certain cases.

Aside from a brief and fairly underwhelming flirtation with his novels and plays as an undergraduate, my reading of Sartre has been almost entirely informed by the essays surrounding May 68 and the role of the engaged intellectual (collected by Verso as Between Existentialism and Marxism). There being a lot to read (!), I have to admit to an ongoing deficit as regards some of the classic texts of existentialism. I've always been more interested in Sartre's project in the Critique than with what I've admittedly pre-judged as his petit-bourgeois disengagement in Being and Nothingness.

In this respect, Sartre's final 1980 interviews with his longtime secretary and former Maoist turned orthodox Jew Benny Levy - published as Hope Now - have proved enlightening. At least, that is, to the extent that the final Sartre, totally dependent and not always lucid, can be said to provide a plausible retrospective. Arguably bullied and harangued by Levy (I'll admit, whose bookends to the interviews are nigh incomprehensible to me), Sartre dispassionately assesses the demise of the organized Left and sketches notes for a future ethical grounding of the Left more broadly construed. In context, this makes perfect sense, since by 1980 French intellectual life had undergone a massive shift "from revolution to ethics" (Bourg). Like other French thinkers seeking a way out of the revolutionary impasse, Sartre opens his (still secular, Left-wing) thought to the resources of Jewish messianism. The interviews created a scandal, and many among Sartre's inner circle dismissed them as Levy's manipulation of a helpless old man. Sartre, tellingly, describes his old age as something lived by him, but only felt by others - a variation of "hell is other people", to be sure.

Let's give the older Sartre the benefit of the doubt, as does Ronald Aronson in his excellent introduction to Columbia's edition of the text. What Sartre reads back into his early existentialism is jarring; he claims to never have felt anguish or despair (devoting considerable attention to these because Kierkegaard and Heidegger were the order of the day), and locates the main philosophical shortcomings of Being and Nothingness in his having missed the inescapable ethical dimension of obligation constitutive of subjectivity. In a word, reading Being and Nothingness in light of the failure of the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Does starting here render a proper understanding of Sartre impossible? Or does a proper understanding of Sartre require facing up to the fundamental incompleteness of his work? Meditating on the fact that Sartre, at death's door and totally dependent on others to do intellectual work, sketched notes for the future, has at least this virtue: it unsettles received ideas of author and corpus and reminds us of what I take to be one of Marx's most important lessons: that thought worthy of the name is never completed.

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