Lauren Kirchner,  June 20, 2014

Happy Birthday, Jean-Paul Sartre

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This Saturday marks the 109th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher, novelist, playwright, and agitator extraordinaire.

Sartre is well known today for many things—though fame was never what he was after. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but declined to accept it, just as he had declined to accept the Legion of Honor two decades earlier. “The writer must . . . refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances,” he explained. You are your life, and nothing else.

But what Sartre is perhaps least remembered for is his journalism. With Serge July, Sartre founded the leftist newspaper Libération in 1973, giving it the motto “People, take the right to speak and keep it.” The paper still runs today, although its future is presently at risk. And in 1945, Sartre traveled to the United States to report for Albert Camus’s French Resistance journal Combat and the newspaper Le Figaro.

In Issue 23 of The Baffler, Seth Colter-Walls reviewed a collection of Sartre’s nonfiction essays published by NYRB Classics, in a piece called “Sartre for Sartre’s Sake.” He found this collection of Sartre’s dispatches, gathered under the heading “On the American Working Class,” to be both impressively written and highly relevant today. An excerpt from Colter-Walls’s essay:

His assessment of the bleak condition of American health care, for instance, is surprisingly topical, at least for those of us eager to figure out not just how much we might save under a government-regulated private insurance system, but also what we might soon expect, in a collective-national-unconscious sense, from the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act. [. . .]

In at least one respect, he did foreshadow the all-out battle for the reader’s precious eyeball-time we know so well in the age of digital reporting: his dispatches from America always came packaged with material suitable for repurposing in headlines. See, for example, the all-caps line atop a report published in Combat on June 10, 1945, about an “apparent equality” between the working and bourgeois classes: “HELLO, JIM!” SAYS CHICAGO’S BISHOP TO THE SCHOOL’S JANITOR. “HELLO, BISHOP!” ANSWERS THE JANITOR.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Lauren Kirchner was previously the web editor of The Baffler.

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