Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sartre Wrote Plays

Does anyone remember that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote plays?

Perhaps a better question might be "Does anyone remember Jean-Paul Sartre?"

You do, and you don't want to…because Sartre was a conspicuous, and very public, fool - and his relentless foolishness makes him especially and wincingly painful to those most apt to share some part of that foolishness.

Sartre was ever and always a Man of the Left; which is to say that throughout the Cold War he was a perfect Stalinist "fellow traveler" and into his doddering old age continued to travel, even when there was no Soviet empire left to travel with.

In a long career he managed to argue that the West forced Stalin to gobble up eastern Europe, defended the Soviet crackdown in Hungary, chinned with Castro, and peddled bizarre conspiracy theories to the effect that South Korea attacked the North, and the US used "germ warfare" on the Chinese hordes. Late in life he essentially turned his once-respected journal over to student Maoists from Nanterre.

These are merely highlights in the journey of a perpetually naïve clown - traffic with a stupid, morally repugnant, leftism which makes anything Ezra Pound got up to pale by comparison.

If Sartre makes his contemporary cognates wince at seeing their own predilections danced by such an earnest buffoon, we should allow as his gullibility included a great deal of genuine courage. Sartre, all but alone, instantly opposed the Algerian War, at a time when even the French Communist party was l'Algerie Francaise…and became the second French intellectual - after Zola - to have mobs marching in Paris howling for the guillotine.

I could forgive Sartre almost anything for being the only prominent Frenchman to question the need for France to pack nuclear weapons!

But anyway, Sartre wrote…lots of things.

He wrote philosophy - numerous essays and interviews, and several big books. It all sucks, because he was cribbing from Kierkegaard and Nietchze, Heidegger and Marx…and those guys were full of shit. Indeed, the only way one could prescribe Sartre is as a short path to concluding the Continental Philosophy Tradition is full of shit.

"What is Literature?" might fall in this category, and might be worth a read.

Political tracts in various forms. None memorable, save perhaps "Anti-Semite and Jew".

Novels and stories. La Nausee is a non-narrative nightmare, and unreadable. The three and a half novels in "Ways to Freedom" are better, but not good. The second - Troubled Sleep - almost captures a John Dos Passos feel…and the vignettes demonstrate Sartre's growing narrative competence. The stories, I am told, are better…but I can't vouch for this. I wouldn't be surprised.

Pseudo-biographies: "Saint Genet" is the worst, because the "saintly" and boring playwright Jean Genet was right at Sartre's elbow, telling lies. The Flaubert and Baudelaire attempts are better. And the auto-pseudo-biography The Words is worth reading.

Really good are the personal memoirs collected in Situations - Albert Camus, Paul Nizan and Merleau-Ponty.

Then there were the plays…lots, I guess.

No Exit is dull to read, and stupefying in performance: "Hell is other Frenchman!" is the legitimate conclusion. But this was an early attempt. Sartre was like every product of the Lycee/University system - graduated incompetent at anything.

But he learned. Three remain in my memory three decades later. "Nekrassov" is a genuinely amusing farce, and as good as any other warning on war propaganda. "Dirty Hands" is a compact Ibsen Idea-and-Action drama, and "The Devil and the Good Lord" is the legitimate philosophical exploration "No Exit" wanted to be.

I would cheerfully trade all of the tedious Giradoux, Anouilh and Brecht for just these.

Try 'em, and see if Sartre deserves to be remembered, at least for his theater.



Post a Comment

<< Home