Cover Story: THE SECOND COMING OF SARTRE ; His Philosophy Inspired a Generation, Then Drifted out of Fashion. Now, 100 Years after His Birth, the Life and Work of Jean-Paul Sartre Are Once Again Highly Relevant " and Bitterly Controversial. JOHN LICHFIELD Explores His Legacy

By Lichfield, John | The Independent (London, England), June 17, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Cover Story: THE SECOND COMING OF SARTRE ; His Philosophy Inspired a Generation, Then Drifted out of Fashion. Now, 100 Years after His Birth, the Life and Work of Jean-Paul Sartre Are Once Again Highly Relevant " and Bitterly Controversial. JOHN LICHFIELD Explores His Legacy


Lichfield, John, The Independent (London, England)


Jean-Paul Sartre's grave is a modest affair, befitting a man who (so he claimed) hated monuments and cared nothing for his own legacy. Beside the plain, white marble tombstone in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris this week, well-wishers had left a vase of plastic flowers, a pot of geraniums, five roses, a pigeon feather, scores of pebbles and five unused Mtro tickets.

On the grave " also the last resting place of Sartre's lifelong 'companion' Simone de Beauvoir " there was an anonymous, scribbled note: 'To JPS and SB, for your sincere writing and for the meaning you gave to life. Thank you for leaving your mark on history.'

What the Mtro tickets were for is unclear. Perhaps Le Petit Homme (the little man) and Castor (the beaver) might like to return to the Caf de Flore to drink coffee, smoke Gauloises, discuss their many infidelities, mock their friends and ponder, from a new perspective, the difference between 'being and nothingness'.

Jean-Paul Sartre " philosopher, novelist, playwright, polemicist, political activist, the secular messiah of existentialism, the prototype of the 'engaged' French intellectual " died 25 years ago this year. He was born 100 years ago next Tuesday.

His funeral in April 1980 provoked an outpouring of grief more usually associated with actors than with ugly, chain-smoking, foul- smelling, squint-eyed philosophers. More than 30,000 people took to the streets of Paris to follow his coffin and " in the phrase of one fan at the time " to 'demonstrate against Sartre's death'.

For the next two decades, Sartre's standing fell (and Beauvoir's, if anything, rose). Sartre's many mistakes and inconsistencies " his support for Stalinism in the early 1950s, for Maoism in the 1970s, his defence of civilian massacres in Algeria and at the 1972 Munich Olympics " obscured the range, versatility and ambition of his writing.

His reputation as one of the most important thinkers and writers of the 20th century is now rising again, not so much in France as " paradoxically " in high academic circles in the United States, a country that he detested.

Jean-Paul Sartre's many attempts to define what human 'freedom' means are attractive to the black, female or radical academics who have formed the North American Sartre Society. Sartre provides them with an intellectual antidote to the glib and often self-serving use of words such as 'freedom' and 'liberty' by the dominant political and media culture of their own country.

In France, the centenary has provoked a flood of re-examinations of Sartre's intellectual and political legacy (which Sartre himself said that he disdained). It is also the occasion for an excellent exhibition (until 21 August) at the Bibliothque Nationale, where you can see the great little man himself, in a series of perpetually rerun snatches from old TV interviews. In one of them, Sartre in his maiden-auntish voice, explains to a Canadian interviewer in 1976 why he refused the Nobel Prize for Literature. To have accepted it, he says, would have given him 'a little badge of distinction, a little symbol of power' which would have separated him, a worker of the mind, from other members of the proletariat. Even a great talent like his, he says (with a coquettish flick of the head) does not justify a dangerous indulgence in such bourgeois vanities as the Nobel Prize.

It is easy, and very tempting, to caricature and mock Jean-Paul Sartre as a poseur and hypocrite. The profound thinker, who believed in the individual's duty to redefine constantly his own road to freedom, sold a Maoist newspaper on the streets of Paris in the 1970s which advocated the random assassination of policemen and bosses. The 'war-hero', who was captured by the Germans while sending up weather balloons, became a 'resistance hero', whose chief act of resistance was to write unpublished tracts and heavily coded plays.

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Cover Story: THE SECOND COMING OF SARTRE ; His Philosophy Inspired a Generation, Then Drifted out of Fashion. Now, 100 Years after His Birth, the Life and Work of Jean-Paul Sartre Are Once Again Highly Relevant " and Bitterly Controversial. JOHN LICHFIELD Explores His Legacy
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