Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 II

Much of the remainder of the book is devoted to painting a detailed sociological portrait of the time and place under discussion. This appeals to me in the sense that it clearly demonstrates how the behavior of the intellectuals in question was determined by the environment in which they lived, and that the actual merit of their ideas played little role in their public stature. However, this approach is also disappointing in that it tends to reduce the issues of the period to style and fashion and thereby grants Judt an authorial control in which the intellectuals in question are portrayed as flawed or ignorant to one degree or another without having any opportunity to defend themselves. On the whole I think Judt's analysis is correct, but obviously Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Mounier and many of the other intellectuals discussed would disagree with him if they were here to defend themselves.

Judt's objections to Sartre center on his silence on important issues, including the existence of Soviet labor camps, the show trials of Eastern Europe and Soviet anti-Semitism. Rather than presenting Sartre's positions as reasoned ones, he explains how attitudes that developed among intellectuals in France evolved over time and supported him. Sartre and his cohort had become suspicious of the U.S. and Britain when they had failed to prevent Hitler's victory in France, when the U.S. had bombed French cities, and, following the war, when the U.S. had become an occupying force.

Judt also describes how the roles of intellectuals differed from country to country. As a dominant cultural center in Europe, Paris had long been respected for its intelligentsia, and they had been highly active in national debates since the Dreyfus affair. I was amused by Judt's frank description of how intellectuals in France differ from those in the U.S.:

One of the distinctive and enduring differences between France and the United States has been the insignificance of the intelligentsia in the public life of the latter. In marked contrast to their French homologues, American intellectuals are marginal to their own culture. For a multitude of reasons, the intellectual in America has no purchase upon the public mind, not to mention public policy. Thus there was (and remains) about the United States something profoundly inimical and alien to the European and French conception of the intellectual and his or her role. If "America" represented the future, then it pointed to a society in which the role of the intellectual, real as well as self-ascribed, would be dramatically reduced.

If I had been more cognizant of this view when the book was published in 1992, I might have saved myself a lot of frustration and annoyance by not subscribing to the New York Review of Books; I didn't recognize until about 2014 the extent to which it is a marginal publication serving the narrow interests of a tiny, closed group. For reasons of mental health alone, steering clear of American intellectuals and their affiliates seems to be the best option, though it may result, as it has in my case, in retreating from the possibility of discussion.

Judt describes the legacy of the French intellectuals in question as follows:

More than their past errors or their occasional air of overbearing superiority, it was the ineffable solipsism of so many French intellectuals that finally broke their hold on the European imagination. Uniquely, they seemed unable to grasp the course of events. Despite their best intentions, Sartre, Mounier, Merleau-Ponty, and their spiritual heirs did not see themselves projected onto the stage of history but rather saw history reduced to the categories and dimensions of their own intellectual trajectories. Because of their neglectful uninterest in Europe's eastern half from 1957 until the later seventies, French intellectuals in recent years have found themselves discovering truths that had already been self-evident to others for three decades....

Since I read this book primarily to gain a better insight into Sartre and de Beauvoir, I'll comment on that. The main suspicions I had adopted while reading de Beauvoir were that her understanding of politics seemed limited in The Mandarins and that she tended to be inappropriately adulatory and uncritical towards her father, her cousin Jacques and Sartre in her memoirs. She also seemed oblivious to the significance of the cultural barriers separating her from Nelson Algren. Judt confirms to me that though she is a clear and honest writer, she is not particularly perceptive and is prone to adopting naïve ideas. Regarding Sartre, I never held him in high regard, and Judt confirms what I already thought. Sartre may have been interesting as a personality and in his range of interests, but from the present he does not in the least resemble a major philosopher, playwright or political theorist. Although I still think that de Beauvoir's writing is worthwhile, I feel that you have to sift through an awful lot of it to find what is best. If you look at all of her work as autobiographical, the most memorable passages for me have been her recollections of conversations that she held with other women. But to get to that you have to wade through thousands of pages of delusional thinking about the men in her life, a poor understanding of history and a shockingly myopic take on the world from a limited French intellectual point of view. At the moment she and Sartre seem to me like one-trick ponies: they resented their bourgeois upbringings, to which I say "So what!" I may resume reading her in the future, but for the time being I've had my fill of her.

Regarding Tony Judt's writing itself, I enjoyed his vigor and clarity as usual; these characteristics set him apart from nearly all academic writers. However, I think that his style is somewhat better suited to shorter essays, because in this full-length book I began to feel that his arguments were overkill, and that there wasn't much left of Sartre by the end. Judt reminds me of a cat that has caught and killed a bird and is carrying it around proudly in his mouth, and though having no intention of eating it he bites it periodically for good measure; before long the bird looks like an inert bundle of feathers, and you begin to wonder what the fuss was all about.

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