100 Years of Nausea
June 21, 2005 3:48 AM   Subscribe

Sartre at 100. Today would have been philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's 100th birthday. Despite renewed interest in him in France, there is some question as to what the legacy of this man is - whether as author, philosopher, playwright, or communist. He was noted for radical views on freedom both in the philosophical and political senses, less so for his recipes. What does he mean today?
posted by graymouser (25 comments total)
"Hell is other people."

Perhaps to celebrate I'll break out some Jean Paul Sartre Experience records.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 4:38 AM on June 21, 2005

I don't have much use for philosophers anymore. But I read a lot of Sartre in high school. Carefully reading Being and Nothingness is a decent substitute if you can't find any pot.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:03 AM on June 21, 2005

I took a course in existentialism last month, and what I took away from it was the limitation of Sartre's work in itself, but also that people like Beauvoir and Fanon have done interesting things with it. In itself, it's a little bit too much with The White Man's TERRIBLE PAIN for me.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:12 AM on June 21, 2005

Maybe I should read some Sartre one of these days. Does it actually make sense, as opposed to being postmodern drivel?
posted by snoktruix at 5:17 AM on June 21, 2005

What does any of this mean? What is the point? Oh, I'm just bored.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:27 AM on June 21, 2005

Sartre isn't really post-modern, Snok, though there are pre-post-modernisms in there (though, again, post-modernism is a time period and not a style).
I really enjoyed Being and Nothingness, along with the assorted essays that he's written. It might be better if you read Being and Time by Heidegger first.
You do have to remember that Sartre was afflicted by compulsive logorrhea (no, really. That's why his intro to Genet's work is longer than Genet's work). So, um, whatever he says does tend to be long.
posted by klangklangston at 5:37 AM on June 21, 2005

Maybe I should read some Sartre one of these days. Does it actually make sense, as opposed to being postmodern drivel?

Well, from what I understand of it, Being and Nothingness is either painful (if you, like me, aren't well-read in phenomenology) or really easy (if you have read other major phenomenological works). His lighter stuff, like Existentialism and Human Emotions, is pretty good. I've just started on Nausea in honor of his centennary; No Exit is a really good read about human relationships (and a very interesting view of Hell). I'd suggest going with the fictional stuff and seeing how you like it; that link under "playwright" takes you to the full text of No Exit.

As for "postmodern drivel," Sartre certainly wasn't a postmodernist, nor was he awash in relativistic drivel. Whether his ideas are worthwhile or not - well, that's very much the live question in this topic, no?
posted by graymouser at 5:42 AM on June 21, 2005

What I am curious to know, and doubt that we could possibly ever get the ground truth of, is the validity of his heroic resistance reputation. You hear he was a great patriot risking torture and death. You hear he was an opportunist and didn't actively do squat until the tide had already clearly turned and the physical danger was close to zero. There is a school of snark that says french postmodern philosophy was nothing but obfuscation of a bunch of cowardly folks who could not bear to talk about reality at a time when by far the most shameful thing which could be said about a person was "he was on the wrong side during the war".

Sartre's greatest fortune cookie quote was the one about man being condemned to freedom.
posted by bukvich at 6:23 AM on June 21, 2005

Whether his ideas are worthwhile or not - well, that's very much the live question in this topic, no?

I've always found any discourse to be worthwhile. The problem I've often found with discourse and Sartre has had nothing to do with him at all. Rather, I have found that often people searching for meaning or direction in life find his works and they are turned on. They begin espousing a philosophy of "existentialism" or "nihilism" and "believing in nothing" when in reality they have joined the Cult of Sartre. I think these poseurs are often associated with his works and people often have a hard time disassociating the two. (no, please don't think I was referring to anyone here, there are of course those who use Sartre's work for intelligent discourse.)
posted by Pollomacho at 6:27 AM on June 21, 2005

Pollomacho -

Hm. I've always thought Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus was much better for the person loking for meaning outside of religion than anything I've read by Sartre, though in my late teens I was much more enamored with Sartre and the whole notion of man as condemned to freedom.

I'm unsure of how to take Sartre, and I woke up hearing about this on the BBC news on NPR, so I was hoping to stir up some ideas on how to take Sartre. Do you know of any good work that's been done on him lately?
posted by graymouser at 6:33 AM on June 21, 2005

bukvich, I think you'll find a lot of polarized views of Sartre, et al.. The one that always stumped me was his "open" relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. On the one hand, it seemed to be a loving connectedness that wasmore honest than most couplings. On the other hand, it was far more "open" for him than it was for her and could be construed as a rationalization that allowed this wall-eyed, physically ugly man to get a lot of tail while providing a safety net during dry spells.

Who knows? I would say nobody.

As for what to read, Sartre weighed in on this before he died. "I would like them to remember Nausea, one or two plays, No Exit and The Devil and the Good Lord, and then my two philosophical works, more particularly the second one, Critique of Dialectical Reason. Then my essay on Genet, Saint Genet, which I wrote quite a long time ago. If these are remembered, that would be quite an achievement, and I don't ask for more. As a man, if a certain Jean-Paul Sartre is remembered, I would like people to remember the milieu or the historical situation in which I lived, the general characteristics of this milieu, how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself. This is how I would like to be remembered." (citation)
posted by Cassford at 6:40 AM on June 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

"A piece of paper is not free to quit being a piece of paper. But you are free to stop reading this article at any given moment." Taken from this article.

Ok, what am I missing? This seems to be merely statement to the effect that only conscious beings have agency. (I assume that the essay isn't equivocating freedom-to-be and freedom-to-do.) Is the essayist misstating Sartre?

As for what to read. I'd start with some Husserl, then early Heidegger, then Camus. After that you can pick up some Merleau-Ponty if you want heavy phenomenological philosophy or Sartre for more of a focus on the social aspects of the human condition. If you finish with a little Levinas and Derrida you'll have taken a fairly nice survey of the most well known thinkers in phenomenological movement.
posted by oddman at 8:58 AM on June 21, 2005

Sartre was a scumbag who basically sat out WWII, doing nothing except putting his name on some essays Simone de Beauvoir wrote for him, while Camus, like others with actual courage, did Resistance work; after the war he claimed heroic status for himself while throwing himself into the arms of Stalin and taking the Soviet side on every issue, no matter how repellent (the invasion of Czechoslovakia, for one notorious example), and viciously attacking his former friend Camus for not following the Party line. While I'm willing to overlook the assholery of great writers, I'm not convinced Sartre is worth the effort; I enjoyed Nausea and a couple of the plays in high school, but when you're in high school you're a sucker for that what-does-it-all-mean stuff.
posted by languagehat at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2005

Here's the obligatory quote, as seen by a prof I once had on the wall of a bathroom at Columbia:

Nietzsche is peatzsche but Sartre is smartre.
posted by ilsa at 9:21 AM on June 21, 2005

I wouldn't know where to begin trying to figure out what Sartre means now. But I did read something I found interesting about him recently: Evidently most of the postmodern/poststructuralist philosophers in France (Foucault, Deluze, Guttari, etc.) ignored the giant shadow of Sartre looming over them in the 60s and 70s. I guess Sartre was a huge figure in France then, they were rebels and they basically made fun of him. However, on his death bed, Foucalt said he owed everything to Sartre. So, maybe part of his legacy was hidden by the post-crowd.
posted by PHINC at 9:44 AM on June 21, 2005

In her biography of Simone de Beauvoir, Deirdre Bair asserts that Sartre and de Bauvoir tried to get involved with Resistance work, and were basically put off as too public and too big-mouthed. I don't know the truth of the situation, but there is an alternative explanation.

Readingwise, I found de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity superior to Existentialism and Human Emotions, most of which is selections from Being and Nothingness.

De Beauvoir did get action outside of Sartre, most notably from Nelson Algren, of course. She got less than he did, but it wasn't so much Sartre's doing. Partly it had to do with being a woman, and partly with her haute-bourgeois idea that women stopped being sexual somewhere before forty. The part of the Sartre-de Beauvior relationship that seems most appalling to me, now, isn't the ass on the side bit, it's that de Bauvoir was always willing to drop her work (most of which is superior to Sartre's) in order to help him. That sits a little badly.

Overall, I still find existentialism to be the most compelling rendering of the world as it appears to me. It's too bad that so many people find it either nihilistic or romanticize it, because I think most would benefit from understanding how they are responisilbe for creating meaning and what that responsibility really entails. Then again, I'm twenty-five and bitter, so make of that what you will.
posted by dame at 10:52 AM on June 21, 2005

dame - What do you think of Sartre's politics? He held on to the Soviet Union for way too long, I think - as languagehat said, supporting them in Prague was just too much.

I like the point about responsibility; it was one of the things in Sartre that I find most challenging. Existentialism is a philosophy of responsibility instead of one of forgiveness; in that way, it's a compelling alternative to forgiveness-oriented Christianity.
posted by graymouser at 11:14 AM on June 21, 2005

I think he was wrong. I don't think that being wrong on that point invalidates existentialism as a whole, though. I do wish I knew more about the situation so as to understand why he would persist; I wonder how much has to do with French domestic politics, anti-Americanism, etc., and how much to do with just plain bad ideas.

Interestingly, I find that without responsibility, forgiveness has no meaning. So while it may seem to stand in opposition, it may not.
posted by dame at 11:58 AM on June 21, 2005

Metafilter: Hell is other people.
posted by NickDouglas at 11:59 AM on June 21, 2005

Slate had an interesting essay a couple of years back discussing Sartre's legacy, the things that made him famous and the things ("It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps") that made him a bit stinky. My favorite thing in the essay, though, was to learn of "...Sartre's experiments with mescaline, which left the philosophe with the recurrent fear that he was being pursued by a lobster."
posted by jfuller at 2:44 PM on June 21, 2005

I'm with languagehat on this too.

And "condemned to freedom" is bullshit. You don't HAVE to do anything but get older and die.
posted by davy at 8:37 PM on June 21, 2005

I have disagreements with Camus too, but not loathing.

Has anybody here ever got through _Being and Nothingness_? I never got past an instinctive distaste for anybody who thought his own two or three ideas were worth all those damn words; that and I hate it when people concoct whole new vocabularies, or whole new meanings for ordinary words, to make themselves sounds "brilliant" and "scholarly". If you can't make yourself understood to a cabdriver or a pharmacist it's YOUR problem, and if you don't want to why publish?
posted by davy at 8:45 PM on June 21, 2005

I never liked that guy. And I never read any of his novels - but that B&N thing was a pile. He went and wrote that pile and then went on to complain that when he went to parties it bothered him that people would come up to him and want to talk philosophy instead of just be, you know, party people. Makes my list of the top 100 dicks of the 20th century.
posted by shoos at 5:50 AM on June 22, 2005

I hate it when people concoct whole new vocabularies, or whole new meanings for ordinary words, to make themselves sounds "brilliant" and "scholarly".

Hear, hear. Christ, what I had to put up with when I used to work at an academic bookstore. Trying to read Derrida was bad enough, but listening to people trying to impress each other talking about Derrida...
posted by languagehat at 5:54 AM on June 22, 2005

Hate on Deleuze & Guattari, please, languagehat. Kick me while I'm down.
posted by rhizome23 at 10:41 AM on June 22, 2005

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