A Philosophy for Really Terrible Times. Part 1
Come back, Jean-Paul Sartre, (nearly) all is forgiven.
This is the first part of a two-part essay. It is a shortened and adapted version of a review article which I wrote last year, but which was in the event never published. I’ve taken out most of the literary stuff, to focus on what I think Existentialism has to tell us today. The second part will appear next Monday.
It’s hard to imagine now the influence that Existentialism had on the cultural life of the West in the fifties and sixties. It was everywhere, especially in the version popularised by the French philosopher, novelist, dramatists and controversialist Jean-Paul Sartre. As late as 1970, the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus could write a sketch about Sartre and his Roads to Freedom trilogy in the certainty that their viewers would be familiar with it. Things have changed greatly since, but I’m beginning to feel that we may be in for (or anyway need) a revival of Sartre’s austere and challenging philosophy. I’ll explain why, via a short account of how and why it came to be in this article, and why it was abandoned later, but may need to be recovered, in the next one.
The immediate prompt for this essay was coming across an unpublished review of mine of Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, which came out in 2017. This essay isn’t about that book, but I’ll just say that it’s a decent enough effort, in spite of the cringe-inducing sub-title (Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails) and the twee drawing of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Aron, looking warily at the aforesaid cocktails in an idealised Parisian café; all of which could lead you into thinking that it’s no more than a gossipy account of the glamorous lives and loves of romantic French intellectuals with strange names and difficult ideas, set among the jazz, the politics and the intellectual controversies of Paris after the War. But the book is actually more than just a gossipy account of etc. etc. It’s written by someone who understands philosophy and can explain it, even if the larger political context is missing. That’s what I’m mainly writing about here, though. So on to the subject itself.
Where to start? By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was clear that western philosophy had begun to decline into an activity by academics for academics: more footnotes to Kant and Hegel, more readings of Plato, endless debates about issues of ethics and epistemology to which definitive, let alone useful, answers were impossible. Philosophy had gone a long way off course since Aristotle, or even Montaigne. There were two broad reactions to this parlous situation, one of which (generally called Logical Positivism) we’ll have to leave aside, the other of which led to what came to be called Existentialism.
Edmund Husserl, though, christened his philosophy “Phenomenology.” He was interested in what we actually experienced in the world, and what we could say about it. Rather than debating what the Platonic Form of a coffee-cup would look like, he said, look, here is an actual cup of coffee. What can I say about it? How do I perceive it? Human reactions, including our emotions, beliefs, and a sense of beauty and wonder, become viable subjects for philosophical study, thus starting to re-connect philosophy with real life after a separation of some centuries. So “things” matter: indeed, said Husserl, a mind that isn’t imagining “something” isn’t a mind at all.
If Husserl is little-known today, almost everybody has heard of Martin Heidegger, if only for the wrong reasons. Heidegger was Husserl’s most famous pupil, and his masterpiece, Being and Time (1927), in spite of being extremely difficult, dense and often obscure, with a newly minted philosophical vocabulary, is one of the most influential works of philosophy of modern times. Heidegger was obsessed with the question of what “being” is, and he argued that our “being” as an individual, is dependent on our relationship with other things, what he called “being in the world.” Yet this contribution is overshadowed by one single act of Heidegger “in the world”: he joined the Nazi party in 1933, as a requirement for the post of Rector of Freiburg University. Even though he resigned from the Party not long afterwards, his pro-Nazi sympathies had been evident before, and it’s not clear whether he ever entirely lost them. So ever since, Heidegger has been best known for raising the question of how someone so intellectually distinguished could have been taken in by Hitler (I suggest an answer a little later).
By now, we can see some of the bits of Existentialism beginning to assemble themselves. But it was left to Sartre to bring everything together. He was in Paris at the end of 1932 with Simone de Beauvoir, whom he had known since University, and their friend Raymond Aron. According to de Beauvoir, they were drinking apricot cocktails, and Aron was telling the others about this exciting work of Husserl. Immediately enthralled, Sartre leapt up and ran to the nearest bookshop in search of a book that would explain all. However that may be, it is true that Sartre subsequently managed to take time away from his uninspiring teaching post, and went to Berlin in 1933 to study Husserl and Phenomenology (although he never actually met the former, and significantly modified the latter). He brought back with him his own developing cocktail of ideas, Phenomenology mixed with Kierkegaard and even a bit of Hegel, and with a strong French flavouring. First in a novel (Nausea, 1938) then in an intimidating philosophical tome written during the German occupation (Being and Nothingness,1943), then in a much more approachable essay (originally a lecture) delivered after the Liberation (Existentialism is a Humanism,1945), and thereafter in a torrent of studies, articles, novels and plays he produced almost until his death, he developed, refined and sometimes reversed his ideas.
There’s an awful lot in Being and Nothingness, but it’s best seen as an extended meditation on human freedom: not idealistic or utopian or normative for once, but rather practical, and even brutal. Freedom, if you like, as a curse. We can start with consciousness, which consists of our personality traits, memories, aspirations and resentments. But none of this, says Sartre, defines me. Only I can do that, and I am free to do so. Indeed, unless I decide what I shall be, I am effectively nothing. I exist, but I have no essence until I make choices. Even refusing to choose is, in fact, a choice. The world does not intrinsically make sense and we should stop demanding that it should.
Now of course, he adds, we don’t like this radical idea of freedom, so we invent external constraints as a way of rationalising our fear. We say, “I must get up” when the alarm rings, but actually that’s only because we have decided to do so. We say, “I have an appointment with X," whereas in theory we could not go. It’s not that Sartre is advocating a life of nihilistic random behaviour; rather that he wants us to understand that we are not passive creations of our race, class, education, family, past experiences or anything else. These factors exist and may be very powerful, but they do not totally control us unless we let them. To claim otherwise (“I had to”) is to act in what Sartre calls “bad faith.” Above all, we should clearly recognise what we can and cannot control, and not make excuses. Nor should we look for other people or outside forces to demonise, and to justify not exercising the freedom we do have. This freedom, to be sure, may be extremely limited. I may be a resistance fighter sentenced to death, but I can determine how I face my death. Nothing and nobody can take that away from me. Sartre recognised that this rather brutal, unsentimental idea of freedom could be a burden and a source of fear as much as a means of liberation. Thus, in his famous words, we are “condemned to be free,” whether we like it or not, and we are responsible for our choices and actions. In our current age, when nobody is free, and nobody is responsible for their actions, this cold, austere, philosophy inevitably has much less appeal than it once did.
Existentialism came from a peculiar interaction between the personal lives and experiences of its advocates, and the political circumstances of the time, so we’ll look at both. It flourished in times of both personal and collective crisis and chaos, which is one reason I think it might be a useful idea to revive now. Sartre, for example, put an awful lot of himself and his life into his philosophical novels, and even his treatises. In Nausea, the town of Bouville (“Mudville”) is the Le Havre to which Sartre was exiled as a teacher, and the ideas and imagery in the book (and later in Being and Nothingness) owe a lot to his childhood fantasies and nightmares. He was subsequently taken prisoner of war, and lived in fear in occupied Paris. And he was open about the fact that the angry and violent tone of his anti-colonial writings had its origin in painful memories of being bullied at school. In de Beauvoir’s case, her strident opposition to marriage and having children, her multiple affairs and dalliance with lesbianism, which so horrified her critics and delighted her early readers, was acknowledged to be a result of her rigid upbringing by an ultra-conservative mother (her father was much more easy-going), and her desire to avoid, at all costs, perpetuating for another generation what she called the “catastrophe” of mother-daughter relations. Indeed, her life and work was essentially an act of unending delayed rebellion against her mother,
Companions for fifty years, and the First Couple of Existentialism, Sartre and de Beauvoir never lived together, but met every day they were in Paris to work, and to read and criticise each others texts. By mutual agreement, both were highly promiscuous. It used to be thought, following the genre stereotypes of the time, that it was Sartre who imposed this curious relationship on his partner, but de Beauvoir’s own memoirs show that she was at least as enthusiastic a bed-hopper as he was. Yet they were faithful in their own way, wrote long letters to each other when separated, and were probably each other’s best friends. Seeing the dazed, numb mask of grief on de Beauvoir’s face at Sartre’s funeral it’s not hard to speculate that they could actually have been a stable couple, if philosophy and their own complicated childhoods hadn’t got in the way.
The rise and flourishing of Existentialism (roughly from 1920-1960), to which they both massively contributed, took place during probably the most turbulent, frightening and disorienting period of modern European history. And that’s saying something.
There’s a tendency to treat the first part of that period as the boring bit, the interval when the contestants were in training for the next match. Yet throughout the period, there was a sour, depressive, doom-laden sense that another war and even worse things were storing themselves up for the immediate future. It’s not hard to see why. The First World War had destroyed massively, without creating anything positive. Empires fell overnight, and quite suddenly tens of millions of people found themselves living in new nation-states designed at Versailles. The ostensible victors, Britain and France, were exhausted and bankrupt, and their leaders, who knew their Classics, must have reflected with Pyrrhus, that another victory like that, and they were done for. The War had, famously, solved nothing: Germany had been defeated and humiliated, but its industry was intact and its population and its industrial potential meant that one day it would want its revenge. For most thinking people in the inter-war years, it wasn’t a question of whether, but when.
For many, though, the biggest problem of all was one of identity: of existence itself. Suddenly the question was, Who am I? From being the capital of a huge Empire, Vienna became a provincial afterthought in a tiny new country. Citizens of that Empire suddenly found themselves Czechs, Poles, Rumanians and Italians, sometimes minorities within minorities within minorities. Borders moved in all directions with little apparent logic and at great speed.
Similarly with ideas. Organised religion had taken a terrible beating as a result of the war; new ideas, in politics, in ethics, in culture, even in fashion, were coming from all directions. The Left had split irreconcilably into a reformist (Socialist) wing and a revolutionary (Communist) one. In some countries, traditionalist conservative elites based on Church, Family and Army took power, but in others new, radical mass parties of the Right, with paramilitary wings, were becoming increasingly powerful.
How, in all of this, to define yourself and your beliefs? We can see in the literature and politics of the time the need to identify with something, to make a commitment of some kind, to make a choice and stick to it. Many joined the Catholic Church, many others the Communist Party. This need was even sharper after the rise of the Nazis. For many thoughtful people, democracy was too feeble to survive, and the future necessarily belonged either to Communism or Fascism. Everybody had to choose between two imperfect options, and everybody was responsible for their choices. The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the emblematic moment: you had to be for or against the Republic or Franco, there were no half-measures. And if you backed the Republic (as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway did) you were implicitly aligning yourself with Stalin. If you opposed the Republic, you couldn’t help, in effect, aligning yourself with Hitler. The long-dreaded Second World War eventually broke out, even as the last Republican prisoners were being executed in Spain.
Throughout this long period of anticipation of the worst, followed by the reality of the even worse, what comfort could philosophy bring? Seminars on the theory of Platonic Ideas, the careful mathematical dissection of language, or the obsessive scab-picking of the Frankfurt School arguing about why the western European working classes hadn’t revolted in 1918, all just seemed beside the point.
It’s against this background that we have to consider the rise of existentialism first in Germany, and in particular Heidegger’s controversial involvement with the Nazis. Whole books have been written about that: I just want to comment on one point, The prevailing mood of numb fatalism I mentioned earlier, with its ineffectual political gestures and desperate attempts to delay the inevitable, produced a concurrent popular desire for strong, determined leadership that would stop the drift and actually get something done. When economic collapse was added to endless political logjam, voices started to be raised calling for someone, anyone, to just get their sleeves rolled up and do something. The idea of dictatorship or authoritarian rule suddenly didn’t seem so unacceptable when you looked at the actually existing alternatives.
It was particularly true in Germany, where 1918 was probably the “strangest defeat” that any country has ever suffered, and, conspiracy theorists aside (and they were numerous) large numbers of Germans, overcome by shock and disbelief, felt betrayed, and estranged from the new Republic from the beginning. Then things got worse, as the financial crisis arrived from across the Atlantic. Particularly exposed by the need to pay enormous reparations, the German economy essentially died. Six million people were unemployed, as the poor starved in the streets. Germany became a frightening place to live, as Communists and extreme nationalists fought running battles in the streets. And the government did … essentially nothing. It wasn’t easy to form a government anyway. The Social Democrats were always the largest party, but never a majority. To keep the powerful Communist Party out, they had to find coalition partners in parties of the Centre and Right with whom they had major differences. In 1930, the system broke down completely, and President Hindenburg appointed a minority right-wing government to rule by decree. Their only policy for reducing unemployment was to cut wages. The Republic was effectively dead. No wonder people looked around for alternatives.
And there was one. The previously-obscure Nazi Party, barely represented in Parliament before, won a stunning 18% of the vote in the 1930 elections. This increased to 38% in July 1932, though after that the Nazis were in decline, and their vote fell quite noticeably in the last democratic election in November of that year.
As I’ve said, the longing throughout the western world was for someone, or several someones, who would just get up and do something. The Nazis projected that image. First, they had youth. Hitler was not yet 45, Goering barely 40. There was an unavoidable and painful contrast with the geriatric top-hatted politicians who governed the country. Most of them had fought in the War (Goering had been a fighter pilot). They espoused modernism and technology: the motor car, the radio and the aeroplane were used as powerful symbols of the transformation that Germany needed. Democracy had failed, they claimed, and more modern political ideas needed to take over. Even their ideology of racial struggle seemed to be based firmly on the latest discoveries in biology. Above all, they promised action. End unemployment by putting people to work, revoke the Versailles Treaty by being strong, recover the lost territories by force if necessary. These were objectives most of the population could go along with; the difference was that the Nazis promised to actually do something. Scenting a chance to put together a stable parliamentary majority, the right-wing parties offered the Nazis a couple of seats in the Cabinet. The rest is the history of the later twentieth century.
Now it’s important not to make facile comparisons between Nazism (and fascism more generally) and Existentialism. Rather, the two were parallel responses to the confusion and fear of the inter-war period. Heidegger, with his interest in being, and self-definition through action, evidently recognised something in the Nazi rhetoric, at least, that resonated with him. This is why perhaps, he refused to make a token grovelling apology for being a sympathiser and (briefly) a party member. The fact is that, like a lot of others, he had been attracted by the can-do approach of the Nazis, and their initial, if qualified, success in putting their ideas into action.
To repeat, like everybody else, he lived in an age when everybody had to choose. We are so inured to the appalling, gigantic shadow that the Third Reich has cast, backwards as well as forwards, that we smugly assume that everyone then was gifted with perfect foresight, and are retrospectively morally guilty, if they didn’t resist or emigrate. In the confusion and fear of Germany in 1933, though, it was not clear what the alternative to Hitler actually was. The most likely would have been more political blockage, increasing political violence and the possibility of Communist risings, leading to some kind of an authoritarian military dictatorship, like Franco’s Spain. The Nazis promised, and largely delivered, stability, even at the point of a gun. This worried many: it just seemed less bad than any foreseeable alternative.
As it happened, Sartre was in Berlin during this period, though he doesn’t seem to have taken much interest in politics. Indeed, his published work before the War was essentially concerned with philosophy: his first novel Nausea published in 1938 was effectively a fictional treatment of the theories of Husserl. Even after the defeat and the occupation, Sartre’s political role was limited. He dabbled a little in the (exceptionally dangerous) business of resistance publications, but mostly kept his head down, as did most French people. To understand why, and to then understand why a different spirit arose, we need look at the catastrophic, almost catatonic, shock produced in France by the defeat of 1940.
For the French, whose geographical situation meant that they could only wait for the inevitable attack, it was like being in a dentists surgery waiting for the drill. But what had been expected was a long, grim struggle like 1914, beginning with a German invasion. There were only three possible routes. The most direct, straight across the frontier, was effectively ruled out by the Maginot Line, and indeed the Germans never seriously considered invading that way. This allowed the French to move most of their forces further west. That left the Germans with two options—through the Ardennes, with its forests, hills, valleys and rivers, or across the plains of Flanders. The second was easier, but longer, and involved going through Belgium and the Netherlands too. In practice, they would have to do both: the question was, which was the main effort and which was the diversion? The French (and British) deduced that the main German attack would come through Belgium, and indeed this was the original German plan. But not long before the attack the Germans changed their plan, to risk everything on putting the main effort through the Ardennes. Belgium would be a diversion. To put it kindly, the plan was a bold one: the uncharitable would have called it suicidal, because it required perfect weather, faultless coordination and a slow reaction by the French and British. In the end, they got all three.
That was the first shock, but it was recoverable. But the Germans, as attackers with weaker forces, also had new tactics available. Roving armoured groups, coordinating with airpower by radio, was a technology to which there was no answer at the time, and would not be for several years. Refusing to fight pitched battles, the Germans used confusion and destabilisation instead. But even that was recoverable. Many in the Government wanted to fight on, from Algeria if necessary. But Weygand, the military commander, refused, and dared the politicians to sack him. Many of them, like the military commanders, were terrified of a Communist revolution if the war went on much longer, and so they agreed to ask for an armistice.
It’s difficult to overestimate the shock and despair that these events produced in the minds of ordinary people. Half the French Army had never seen the enemy, those that had, had fought well and inflicted heavy casualties. But now it was all over, just like that. No wonder people assumed treason. The country was split in two: half controlled directly by the Germans, half ruled by a new authoritarian regime led by Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun. Resistance was effectively impossible: the Army was demobilised and limited to 100,000 men stationed in Algeria. Two million French soldiers were prisoners of war. The few acts of violence against the occupiers were met with brutal reprisals, and even distributing clandestine tracts could send you to a concentration camp or a firing squad. The British could do no more, for the time being, than defend their island.
Above all, the situation was what the French call hallucinante, even surreal. Everything had changed but more or less everything remained the same. There were German soldiers in the streets, but also French policemen. Life continued much as it had. Pétain’s regime had been installed legally, since the French Parliament had voted him full powers: it was also recognised by the United States, for example. There was no effective political opposition, apart from a little-known General in London with a handful of supporters. Yet the country was already being asset-stripped by the Germans. Everybody was hungry. Everybody was in a state of shock, unable to absorb the enormity of what had happened. The new regime, based at the spa town of Vichy, installed an authoritarian, traditionalist government, began its own persecution of opponents, and worked desperately to achieve the maximum freedom (that word again) from German control.
“Life” remarks one of Sartre’s characters in his allegory of the Occupation The Flies, “begins on the far side of despair.” And it is there that, slowly, the idea of resistance (not the Resistance, that came later) began to form. People began to realise that they might be generally helpless, but there were still tiny things they were free to do. Scrawling an anti-German slogan, defacing a picture of Pétain, giving wrong directions to a German officer, even listening clandestinely to De Gaulle broadcasting from London: none of these things was going to win the war, but that wasn’t the point. Slowly, groups began to form. Intellectuals like the poet Louis Aragon wrote poems and tracts for distribution. A clandestine publishing house Les Editions de minuit (the Midnight Press, which still exists) began to print and distribute subversive literature. Slowly, and with British help and funding, Resistance groups began to form, to gather intelligence, to help Allied aircrew who had been shot down, and to carry out targeted operations. Most of all, they were there to prepare a government in waiting, and a military capability to hit the Germans from the rear when the Allies landed. And in spite of the Gestapo, the Vichy Police, betrayal, torture and death on a massive scale, they largely succeeded.
When Allied troops approached Paris in August 1944, there was a popular insurrection, led by the Resistance, against the occupier. The fighting was heavy: almost a thousand dead among the Resistance fighters, and three times as many among the Germans. When the French Second Armoured Division entered the city, it was effectively already liberated. And all over France, the Resistance moved to take power in towns and cities, expel the invader, and prepare the way for De Gaulle’s provisional government.
Like Existentialism, Resistance was a state of mind as much as anything else. The two were not causally connected, but in the euphoria of the Liberation, Existentialism was a powerful and relevant vocabulary and set of concepts that anyone could use. In early 1945, Sartre published the first two volumes of his Roads to Freedom trilogy, set before and during the war, which made many existentialist ideas available in popular form, and in reaction to criticism of the books from the Communist Party and others, he gave a public lecture that October, later published as Existentialism is a Humanism. For everyone who had struggled through Being and Nothingness, a thousand people read these texts, and nearly all had just passed through a period of uncertainty, fear and the need for choice. Existentialism had arrived as a popular force. Now what?