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Sartre for Sartre’s Sake

We Have Only This Life to Live: The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939–1975

(New York Review Books, $24.95, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven)

Jean-Paul Sartre’s chief political fidelity was not pledged to Communism, or Marxism, or even the amorphous spirit of May ’68 (with which he was sometimes associated)—but rather to a program of constant self-revision. In a 1969 interview, Sartre provided a cheerful example of his propensity for containing disputatious multitudes. Taking stock of some of his earlier outbursts on behalf of revolutionary purism, the philosopher-novelist-playwright exclaimed: “When I read this, I said to myself: ‘It’s incredible, I actually believed that!’” In other words, Sartre demanded the freedom to be crazily wrong, and then to notice this reality according to his own timetable. Ronald Aronson, the coeditor of We Have Only This Life to Live, a new collection of Sartre’s nonfiction, writes in his introduction that Sartre was fond of “over-the-top analyses” and was continually at pains to remind the world that “situations and people can change.” They do, and one can, of course—but even fans of Sartre must grapple with the obvious flights from accuracy that crop up in his writing.

So the surprise of this new collection is that its most impressive writing is Sartre’s reported journalism—specifically from his journey to the United States in the first half of 1945 for Combat, the French Resistance journal edited by Albert Camus. The costs were shared by Le Figaro, for which Sartre also filed some dispatches, though his chief challenge was to explain to Combat’s revolutionary readership just what he was seeing in newly ascendant America.

Sartre demanded the freedom to be crazily wrong, and then to notice this reality according to his own timetable.

Here now, for the first time in any English collection of Sartre’s nonfiction, we have seven of those Combat dispatches, grouped under the heading “On the American Working Class.” Happily, some of the accounts that Sartre gathered during his six-month, winter-into-summer stay on American soil read well. His instruments of detection are not faultless, but when they’re locked in, they resonate strongly, even from beyond the grave. None of them approach the fact-filled, clickable slideshows that now pour forth from the public-intellectual regions of digital journalism—which is, of course, what makes them all the more memorable. 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.

And beyond mere questions of accuracy or contemporary relevance, the pieces collected here are simply a lot more fun to read than market-strained contemporary journalism. Sartre clearly enjoyed being in the States (even if he says he “learned” how to love New York, in the essay “New York, Colonial City”). 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.

Yet Sartre can see all the sides of this peculiarly American display of the leveling spirit: both the optimistic striver’s honesty and the mutually agreed upon falsehoods of garden-variety bullshit. And, instead of being reflexively dogmatic or cynical by virtue of his Marxist training, Sartre reports on the good faith he can see resting underneath the probable false consciousness: “Maybe they are more easily fooled than others,” he writes of all these Americans distributed among various economic strata (all of whom are obliged to contribute to the class-neutral culture of easy-breezy chattiness). “But this truly human kindness that pervades class relationships is surely one of the most charming and spontaneous characteristics of the United States.” Sartre attributes this tic to a culture of “professional individualism” that breeds an abiding personal optimism about self-improvement—and that also has the effect of blunting class identification among American workers. (A look at the number of student loan debt holders who labor today under the same illusions keeps this diagnosis feeling all too fresh.)

Sartre tends to be most critical of social democrats who wind up downplaying their political rooting interests out of deference to the demands of American business civilization. In a June 1945 report for Combat, Sartre examines the proto-HMO system of health care instituted at one of the hospitals built—in part from workers’ garnished wages—by shipyard magnate Henry J. Kaiser. He discovers that the Kaiser workforce were unaware of their own stake in the operation; when he asks a shipyard worker, “Who is paying for all this?” the man replies, thoroughly persuaded: “But, Mr. Kaiser!” In reality, Kaiser had recouped his initial out-of-pocket investment within six months—while each worker in the Kaiser network continued to be assessed hospital fees out of their weekly paychecks.

In the body of the dispatch, Sartre profiles a “left-wing militant” doctor desperately trying to convince himself that he’s working on the vanguard of true health care reform. The physician told Sartre that “all European visitors are equally amazed and indignant” that the workers in America should have no ownership share of the hospital they helped to finance. “But that’s absurd,” the doctor hastens to explain. “What can we do? Kaiser would have never accepted worker participation in the hospital’s administration. Therefore, should we have sabotaged the undertaking? . . . As you know, health in America is ‘big business.’”

Swap out “congressional Republicans and Max Baucus” for “Kaiser” and here you have the story of Team Obama’s abandonment of the public option. Meanwhile, back in 1945, after noting that a “something” for the workers (that they can’t own) is preferable to a fully vested holding in nothing at all, the doctor goes on to assure Sartre that Kaiser’s proto-HMO system is the cat’s paw for an eventual public takeover of the health care system: “It represents a terrible blow to private medicine. . . . That’s how [Kaiser] will have contributed to the growth of socialized medicine.”

Nearly seventy years later, the profit margins among American physicians, insurers, and pharmaceuticals show that they weathered the threatened socialist takeover of their industry pretty well. Sartre predicted as much at the beginning of his next paragraph: “What to answer him? That health care that is in the service of the big capitalists is not exactly socialized medicine? What would have been the use?”

Sartre, shooting consistently from the hip, gets some things wrong and, like many another European sojourner to the New World, can generalize wildly about the American scene with scant evidence. He identifies (and then laments) a lack of revolutionary ardor among American workers on the basis of a few too-conservative souls in the labor movement—just months before what turned out to be an unusually active summer of labor demonstrations in New York and Detroit, and before a four-day sit-down strike in August 1945 by fourteen thousand shipyard workers in Camden, New Jersey (some of whom, presumably, had a few ideas of their own about worker control).

But in sizing up the American mood on the issue of health care—and specifically in recognizing that a fixation on preserving the profit motive in medicine would likely prove an inoperable cancer within the body politic—Sartre’s reported work in America holds up. Compared to his more pedestrian cultural observations about New York (it’s different from European cities!) and his outright laughable opinions on jazz—a subject on which, like Theodor Adorno and some other continental philosophers, he’s wildly, hilariously wrong—the class and health care reporting feel both accurate and important.

Sartre recognized that a fixation on preserving the profit motive in medicine would likely prove an inoperable cancer within the body politic.

Today, a blunt and chuckling track record of self-reversal such as Sartre’s is just not the done thing among our public intellectuals. For today’s commentariat to admit basic errors of fact or interpretation is to invite charges of flip-flopping and (worst of all) outsiderly un-savviness. The hidden cost of this posture, however, is a deeply conservative lack of interpretive ambition, tailor-made for the ideas festivals and corporate junkets that protect our enlightened betters from contact with militants of any kind. Those who make a sport of predicting election outcomes are routinely proven wrong, as are those who guide the public on war, peace, and health care—and they have no defense other than to wave away their botching of the tea leaves with a fatalistic variation of “What can you do?” Or if you are Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and your triumphant Newsweek article bashing Obamacare instantly collapsed last year in a mile-high pile of misrepresentation, you just say (in so many words), “Piss off.”

The first order of business for most of our pundits is to stay on guard against any external threat to the continuity of their own data streams and the integrity of their social media personas. The marketplace encourages our collective trust in the consistency of this news product—the understanding that, like it or not, Fox News will be Fox News today and tomorrow, and MSNBC will remain MSNBC just the same.

So if navigating political and intellectual life by such fixed-spectrum points of consistency seems a depressingly petty prospect, Sartre’s reported dispatches—and not just the indisputably correct ones—offer something else of interest. He is not, as many website and aggregation experts proudly assert of their own work, here to save you time. By alerting the reader to the possibility that the writer might be wrong, or that the essayist reserves the right to change a stance in the next essay, Sartre keeps his audience alert—and wary of ceding too much credulity on the basis of familiarity or political allegiance.

I happen to be the fairly proud owner of the late novelist David Markson’s personal copy of Sartre’s weird, short tract Anti-Semite and Jew. Toward the close of one particularly obtuse passage, Markson (quite correctly) wrote in the margin: “Dear Jean-Paul: How can you be sometimes so smart and sometimes so stupid?” But Markson didn’t stop reading at that point, either. The satisfying end of this bargain comes when a moment of true feeling hits, complete with the added force of an insight that has been arrived at with somewhat less ease than the average “smart take.” Sartre probably would have done horribly on Twitter; his frequent factual missteps would be called out like clockwork—or at least frequently enough to sour his good humor and clench up his writerly rhythms. But for all their flaws, many of the essays in this six-hundred-page collection still tower over the strategically miniaturized, score-keeping mindset that now defines the permissible bounds of both journalistic activity and political debate.