Roger Scruton

The power of negative thinking

Roger Scruton says that France has never recovered from Jean-Paul Sartre’s horror of the bourgeoisie and his repudiation of both Christianity and the idea of France

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Roger Scruton says that France has never recovered from Jean-Paul Sartre’s horror of the bourgeoisie and his repudiation of both Christianity and the idea of France

Jean-Paul Sartre, born 100 years ago on 21 June 1905, was the most striking presence in French post-war literature, and the originating cause of the left-bank culture of the Sixties. His prodigious literary gifts found expression in seminal works of philosophy, in novels, plays, stories, criticism, in a highly influential literary journal (Les Temps modernes) and in a remarkable work of autobiography (Les Mots, 1964). His versatile sensibility set him high above the intellectual landscape on which he poured down his scorn, and his ability to express complex ideas in vivid imagery enabled him to influence not only his fellow intellectuals but the entire social and political fabric of modern France. Thirty thousand people followed his coffin — a tribute comparable to that paid by the people of Vienna to Beethoven, a century and a half before, and one that no British or American philosopher could ever hope for.

Sartre invented the anti-hero of modern literature, the suffering consciousness who does not act but who hides within his ego, disgusted by the obscene reality of external things (La Nausée, 1938). He advocated the moral posture of the ‘existentialist’ — the one for whom the self and its authenticity take precedence over every moral code, every convention, every custom in which ‘others’ have a voice, but who nevertheless lives by engagement or commitment (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946). He out-satanised Baudelaire in his choice of heroes, discovered in the professional thief Jean Genet the type of the modern saint (Saint Genet, comédien et martyr, 1952), and advocated crime as a form of moral purity. He reinvented the class enemy of Marx and inspired a whole generation of young people to live in antagonism towards the ‘bourgeoisie’ — the class that jettisons freedom in favour of the ‘bad faith’ of customs, institutions and laws.

Although Sartre campaigned ceaselessly for the destruction of bourgeois France, he was also, in the post-war period, a sharp critic of the Communist party, having witnessed the party’s shameless collaboration with the Nazis. When his anti-communist play, Les Mains sales, was first produced in 1948 Sartre was targeted by the party as a public enemy. Following his partial conversion to Marxism in the 1950s, however, he refused to allow Les Mains sales to be performed, and began to urge his readers ‘to judge communism by its intentions and not by its actions’ — a stance that he retained until the end of his life. It is with incredulity that one now reads the book by Michel-Antoine Burnier (Le Testament de Sartre, 1984), which brings together Sartre’s mind-boggling apologies for mass murder and enslavement.

It is fair to say that Sartre’s anti-bourgeois rhetoric changed the language and the agenda of post-war French philosophy, and was the original inspiration for Barthes, Foucault and the phoney psychotherapies of Lacan and R.D. Laing. It was translated into street theatre in May 1968, and fired the revolutionary ambitions of students who had come to Paris from the former colonies. One of those students was later to return to his native Cambodia and put into practice the ‘totalising’ doctrine (expressed in Critique de la raison dialectique, 1960, and in Situations VIII and Situations IX, 1972) that has as its targets the ‘seriality’ and ‘otherness’ of the bourgeois class. And in the purifying rage of Pol Pot it is not unreasonable to see the contempt for the ordinary and the actual that is expressed in almost every line of Sartre’s demonic prose. ‘Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint,’ says Mephistopheles — I am the spirit who always denies. The same can be said of Sartre, for whom l’enfer, c’est les autres — hell is other people (Huis clos, 1947). Like Milton’s Satan, Sartre saw the world transfigured by his own pride — a pride that caused him to refuse all tributes, from the Légion d’Honneur to the Nobel Prize, since they originated in the Other and not in the Self.

Having got that off my chest and given you a start on the bibliography, I can freely admit that Sartre was a genius who saw to the heart of the modern condition and who brought French romantic literature to a kind of self-conscious and also self-refuting climax. His masterpiece, L’