How did the author of acclaimed masterpieces of scepticism such as Nausea and Being and Nothingness become, two decades later, the apologist for totalitarianism, one who could say that freedom of expression in the Soviet Union was total and that all anti-Communists were "bastards"? The question seems to touch on something essential concerning not only the development of one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century, but of the course of the century itself.
Bernard-Henri Lévy analyses this conjunction in his 500-page Le Siècle de Sartre , published in France in 2000. Sartre, Levy suggests, stands at the heart of the intellectual, cultural, literary and political preoccupations of the century, representing some of its deepest challenges, fissures and, indeed, tragedies. In an otherwise excellent translation by Andrew Brown, which brings to life Levy's word play, his sometimes conversational, sometimes labyrinthine, but always vivid prose, the title of the English translation, Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century might represent something of a dilution. Levy means, after all, that the century belonged to Sartre and his thought in some definitive sense. To understand the century, Levy suggests, we must "go through Sartre".
It would be easy to put this down to Gallic excess. It would be easy, too, to question the elaborate rhetorical gestures or to suggest that here are 500 pages desperately in search of a strong editor. While the work aspires to the grandeur and the status of Sartre's own critical works, it lacks the voyeurism of Sartrean or existentialist psychoanalytic method, as well as its close textual analysis. But the portentous sweep gives us insights instead into Sartre's indebtedness to and struggles with Hegel, Nietzsche, Bergson, Gide and Heidegger, as well as the extraordinary web that linked Sartre intimately to almost every French cultural figure of the century. If there is a tendency to conceive the entire intellectual world of the 20th century as gathered entirely within the confines of Paris' Left Bank, with the Café Flore as its epicentre, and perhaps Marburg, Freiburg and Berlin as suburbs, this hardly comes as a surprise.
Levy's key thesis is that there were two Sartres - the pessimistic, Nietzschean Sartre who wrote the extraordinary works of his early maturity and the optimistic Sartre, in thrall to various shades of totalitarian Marxism. To the latter Sartre, Levy offers no consolation. He is more generous to the Sartre of the Resistance, whom Camus found asleep in a deserted theatre that Sartre was supposed to be guarding, than most others and more generous than he is to the Stalinist, then Maoist, Sartre.
The virulence of Levy's critique comes as a surprise, until we discover that his narrative ends with an account of Sartre's apparent "conversion" to Judaism, and the appearance of Levinas - or more unlikely still, Benny Levy - as a deus ex machina to bestow at the last meaning and purpose on the drama of Sartre's life and to absolve him of earlier "crimes". Not only do we remain unconvinced by this, the third Sartre, but it leads us to question what went before. Sartre is found guilty, but only because he will ultimately find Judaism. If the story of the century is the story of Sartre, then both deserve a less convenient, less conclusive ending than the one Levy foists on them.
Sartre asleep in the theatre becomes a theme of Ronald Aronson's Camus and Sartre , which looks at the friendship between the two writers and thinkers, their intellectual relationship and the devastating break between them in 1952. After their split, Camus referred sarcastically to Sartre pointing his theatre seat "in the direction of history", while Sartre's vicious assault on Camus in the pages of Les Temps Modernes rendered reconciliation impossible. Aronson analyses their writings before their break to show what brought them together and then how, afterwards, they continued to influence each other. As Sartre indicated in his eulogy for his dead friend, "being apart is just another way of being together".
It is a gripping story, superbly told, of an epic struggle of ideas and an intense and personal account of shattered trust and broken friendship.
Analysing many unpublished and untranslated texts, particularly the journalism of both figures, the book traces the history of the divergent paths of the two thinkers, the one the "pope of existentialism", the universally acknowledged genius, opening the gates of Parisian cultural life to the other, the handsome young French Algerian, managing somehow to cut his own dash. If there can be a criticism of the book, it is in the almost over-scrupulous fairness by which the author judges the "score draw" that sees Sartre condemned for his blindness to Communist oppression but praised for his support for the third world, and Camus championed for his hostility to violence while lambasted for his silence on French colonialist violence in Algeria. Or perhaps this is another strength of the book, suggesting as it does that the questions these thinkers fought over carry resonance and significance into the 21st century and hinting that we have still to understand their legacies.
Philip Pothen works for the Joint Infomation Systems Committee at King's College London, and is researching Sartre's aesthetics.
Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century
Author - Bernard-Henri Levy
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 536
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7456 3009 X