Sunday, March 20, 2016


Since I read Sarah Bakewell's brilliant book "At the Existentialist Cafe," I have made a renewed attempt - the third or fourth over the course of as many decades - to come to terms with the vast oeuvre of Jean-Paul Sartre. Despite the disdain shown by some, including Analytic philosophers unprepared to grapple with his magnum opus "Being and Nothingness," Sartre without question ranks internationally as the most influential intellectual of the 20th century.

He was massively active in a number of fields: fiction, the theater, literary and artistic criticism, political commentary, and philosophy. Nonetheless, his reputation declined after his death in 1980. This decline reflected disillusionment with his seeming dalliance with Stalinism, a fault especially glaring after 1991; his tendency to make provocative judgments which he then had to correct (or should have corrected); and the appalling style of some of his later works, so much in contrast with the careful crafting of his Nausea (a short novel), The Wall (short stories), and No Exit (one of six or seven plays).

A graphomane, he ground out the later works under the influence of opiates and alcohol. Yet now, as often happens, Sartre's reputation is reviving. Perhaps the most important aspect of this recuperation lies in his tireless defense (equalling that of Voltaire) of the downtrodden and dispossessed, especially people of color. With rising inequality both within and between societies today, these interventions seem very timely - though of course some of the details have not held up. His critique of anti-Semitism, though challenged in some respects, was courageous and innovative. Likewise the rare but generally sympathetic comments about homosexuals. Not to be forgotten is his close partnership with Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminism he encouraged.

I continue to struggle with my ambivalence, inflected by great admiration, with regard to J-P Sartre. As far as I know there is no comprehensive account of the fluctuations of his reputation since his death 35 years ago. At this distance, the dialogue is hard to trace as much of it is in periodicals.

Still, there seem to be three main areas of contention: 1) the record of Sartre and de Beauvoir in WWII, which was less sterling and more procrastinating than later accounts often have it; 2) his tendency to excuse Communist and third-world dictatorships as somehow the party of humanity (very late, he partially recanted); and 3) his tortured effort to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in the two ultraturgid volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Politically, and if you will, in terms of world historical development, the present situation in this country strikes me as extremely volatile and dangerous. With the rising tide of violence in some quarters, it may be that civil war looms. We must hope not.
At all events, in order to arrive at some semblance of understanding it is important to move beyond personalities: the oafishness of Trump, the callowness of Rubio, the seeming untrustworthiness of HRC. It seems to me that process (in Whitehead's sense) is more important than personalities.
The main development that has been occurring over the last few decades is the growing institutionalization of multiculturalism - a gorgeous mosaic according to the optimistists, a growing source of divisiveness according to the pessimists and (forgive my Latin) the laudatores temporis acti (the party of nostalgia).
Increasingly, we see appeals to form judgments according to one's ethnicity, and not one's individual judgment. It borders on treason to do otherwise. I find this herding into ethnic enclaves depressing - it is a form of retribalization.
Yet the process may be inevitable. If so, the roster of tribes will not be restricted to African Americans, Hispanics, and the other ethnics (including willy-nilly my own tribe of LGBT people). It will include a white-people's faction. This is the diabolical truth that Trump has seized upon. But, horresco referens, may not Bernie Sanders represent another segment of this identarian grouping?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Violence, is it ever justified?

The confrontation in Chicago, where Trump had to retreat. may turn out to be a portent, as we seem to be careening towards violent confrontation on both sides. I take no position on which side is right, though I would agree that Trump started it.
It is worth considering some of the positive approaches, if you will, to violence as a tool of political change. The first landmark is a book by Georges Sorel, a French syndicalist, who (perhaps fittingly enough) influenced both left and right in his day. His Reflections on Violence (Réflexions sur la violence) was published in 1908. Sorel argues that the success of the proletariat in class struggle depended on the creation of a catastrophic and violent revolution achieved through a general strike. One of his most controversial assertions claimed that violence could save the world from barbarism. He equates violence with life, creativity, and virtue. A major contention argued by Sorel in the book is on the importance of myths as "expressions of will to act".
The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre) is a 1961 book by Frantz Fanon, offering a psychiatric and psychological analysis of the dehumanizing effects of colonization upon the individual, and the nation, from which derive the broader social, cultural, and political implications inherent to establishing a social movement for the decolonization of a person and of a people.
In his introduction to the book, Jean-Paul Sartre supported Fanon’s advocacy of justified violence by the colonized people against the foreign colonizer as necessary for their mental health and political liberation. The political focus stems from the first chapter of the book, “Concerning Violence,” wherein Fanon indicts colonialism and its post-colonial legacies, for which violence is a means of catharsis and liberation from being a colonial subject.
For Fanon and Sartre, then, violence is only justified for the poor and downtrodden. The corollary though is that violence will also be applied by the forces of domination.