Chemise Ouvert

People seem to be on a mission to entertain us with stories of absurd or preening or egomaniacal men. Yesterday we had Laurie Taylor mocking his younger trendier self, today (because today is when I saw it, not when it came out) we have Kevin Jackson teasing his teenage out of date existentialist self.

If you did happen to be a swot and/or would-be intellectual, Sartre was even harder to avoid—he was one of the few modern gurus who could rival Kafka and Beckett in the bookish adolescent’s pantheon of lugubrious heroes…I look back on all this adolescent Sartreanism with relatively slight embarrassment; everyone, after all, has to start the messy job of growing up with the fodder their culture is offering at the time, and at least I wasn’t gorging my half-formed brain on Tolkien.

Well said. If he had been, his brain would have remained half-formed.

Nevertheless, today, it very nearly goes without saying that my contemporaries and I were being hopelessly old-fashioned in what we mistook for our avant-gardism…To put it mildly, though, his name no longer seems to excite the intelligent young; mainstream British philosophers continue, as they did when he was alive, to contend that what Sartre wrote had little or nothing to do with philosophy, and for every one book published on Sartre and x, there are 60, 70, 100 on Foucault and y. A widely read crib entitled Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers (1994), by John Lechte, devotes whole chapters to fauna such as Le Doeuff and Pateman—Pateman?—but mentions Sartre only in asides.

But he may be making what Hollywood watchers call a ‘comeback.’

Bookshops are laden with his works, newspapers are publishing Sartre supplements, and when I switched on the television in my hotel room, the first thing I saw was Bernard-Henry Levy, the open-shirted media intellectual, recanting his youthful rejection of Sartre and claiming that everything valuable in the maîtres penseurs of the 1960s was already present in Sartre’s thought.

Le pauvre BHL, eh – he might as well make ‘open-shirted’ his middle name.

I interviewed Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, on Sartre the philosopher. To my surprise, since Blackburn works in a tradition that is alien or even hostile to Sartre’s, he expressed sympathy for the early work, citing Nausea as a rare example of a philosophical novel which achieves a convincing union of fiction and ideas, and commended the moments in Being and Nothingness—the famous passage about the over-attentive waiter, which Sartre uses as a parable of bad faith, is a case in point—where Sartre’s novelistic powers animate his train of thought and take imaginative flight. As a philosophical stylist, Blackburn suggested, Sartre might be compared to Kant: in both writers, pages of dry exposition suddenly give way to a flash of dazzling lyricism, wit or incongruity.

Which is interesting – the whole philosophy as a kind of writing thing, and how important style and wit are or are not. Style, wit, and open shirts.

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