Wednesday, 13 July 2005

The Smell of Sartre

If we are to speak de mortuis nil nisi bonum, then it behoves us to say nothing much about some dead intellectuals, for about them there is little that was not bad; and if we were to say something good, it would be nothing that is not trivial, such that Sartre liked puppies or that Foucault was known to knit baby-boots (neither of which, I must add, I know to be true).
.....In short, if I were to comply with this exhortation, I should be unable to speak about their ideas, upon which their claimed significance and reputations rest. I should, instead, be confined to trifles. Were they, their works and their reputations to remain forever buried, their names never to be uttered or their words repeated, then I should be happy to comply with this exhortation, to speak nothing (but good) about them, for then there would be nothing to be said about them at all.
.....But this is not the case. Foucault's reputation, for instance, lingers in the halls of academia like the stench of a rotten rat under the floorboards, of which the denizens thereof seem unable or unwilling to rid themselves. The reputations of Lacan and Barthes and numerous others still excite the buzz of academics. And on the centenary of Sartre's birth, there have appeared persons of mean intelligence who think it high time we spoke well of him again, as if we could lessen the smell of a week-old fish-pie by reheating it.
.....For one,
Kevin Jackson in Prospect magazine (found via Arts & Letters Daily) thinks that "For decades, Sartre's reputation has often been more a matter of hearsay, allegation and cliché than of well-founded judgment" (in other words, it is a stink kicked up by unjust and ignorant critics), and that "It is time for us to start reading him properly". If we are serious about finding the source of the smell, however, then we ought to begin by looking under the covers of his shysterwork, Being and Nothingness, in which we read that "a gift is a primitive form of destruction", that smoking is "the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world", and (my favourite) that, "The Being by which Nothingness arrives in the world must nihilate Nothingness in its Being, and even so it still runs the risk of establishing Nothingness as a transcendent in the very heart of immanence unless it nihilates Nothingness in connection with its own being".
.....I opine that reading him properly can reveal much about intellectual impropriety and the fadish pretensions of French intellectuals.
.....There are few more disagreeable sights than the digging-out of an intellectual fad long after it was buried quietly in embarrassment. At least a new fad has the appeal of its freshness, something to which our blusterers, full of the joys of idiocy, are drawn. In its old age, however, a fad comes to take on the appearance of its innermost character. It begins to look absurd, because it has always been absurd; it begins to look flighty, because it has always been flighty; it comes to look farcical and foolish and idle because it has always been those things.

In the spirit of charity, I believe Sartre best forgotten.

No comments: