Jean-Paul Sartre’s Influences
Check out the books, authors, and Big Ideas that influenced this critic.
Henri Bergson's essay Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness got me turned on to philosophy when I was like fourteen (for me, it was sort of like the Twilight series for today's generation but without romance or vampires, and, you know, brainier). In Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943), I tackle a lot of the ideas that Bergson put forth in Time and Free Will. (Some people praise Heidegger's great influence on my work when they should credit Bergson.) For one thing, I take a nice long look at Bergson's idea of "nothingness," obviously.
See, Monsieur Bergson claimed we could never authentically experience nothing because even as we experience nothing we experience something. You can't have "consciousness-of-nothing" because that consciousness is, in itself, something.
I beg to differ. Nothingness can have a certain je ne sais quoi—we can experience it. For example, say I go to meet my pal Pierre in a McDonald's. Oh no! He's not there. Well his not being there is something to me: his absence is manifest, his nothing is something. Everywhere I look I see people who are not Pierre. I see his "negation," or the "not Pierre" There you have it, or not.
Heidegger's Being and Time is a muse text for my own work in phenomenological ontology, and I discuss it in Being and Nothingness. But Heidegger had the nerve to accuse me of getting the wrong idea about his work and denying that he was in the existentialist tradition. Fine.
So remember my whole "existence precedes essence thing"? Well, for me this is about the human subject (you don't want to be a rock, right?). Heidegger said that any time you start with a human subject at all you make the implicit assumption that essence precedes existence. Heidegger argued that thinking and being come before action, since you can't be a subject without thinking in the first place. Fair enough, but you're still wrong, H.
In Anti-Semite and Jew, I discuss the origins of "hate" by suggesting that anti-Semitism really just a specific brand of hate in general. I look at the anti-Semite, the democrat, the authentic Jew, and the "inauthentic Jew" and how they all mingle and identify each other by their interactions.
Obviously anti-Semitism is one of our era's must destructive prejudices—and it hasn't magically disappeared after the Holocaust. French cultural nationalists (hardcore patriots) loathe modern existence, which they align with Jews. Basically, if you ask me, this bigoted thinking is a way of taking everything they hate and associating it with Jews so they can hate someone rather than just a bunch of abstract ideas.
In my Critique de la raison dialectique, I defend Marxism in all its communist glory. Some people say I get too far away from existentialism in this work, but they can think what they want: I reject their opinions because I am a subject, not an object sitting out there waiting to be judged by them, mais oui?
Look, I am still interested in human freedom, responsibility, and all that sweet stuff, I just want to look at it through the lens of all of the domineering political and economic institutions of my day—i.e., capitalism and imperialism. Hey—I'm a Marxist, for sure, and at the end of the day, I'd like to chuck private property out the window and live in a classless society. Is that too much to ask?
Which brings me to my best bud Che. Simone and I traveled a lot—Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia—anywhere with some staunch Marxists. Along the way we found ourselves in Cuba hanging with every hipster T-shirt's favorite subject: Ernesto "Che" Guevara. As a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, my kickin' it with Che seemed like the right thing to do. Plus we've gotten to hang out with that cigar-loving tyrant, Fidel Castro.
Besides being incredibly photogenic and handsome, Che's a "model revolutionary." He combines the kind of brotherly love-in and revolutionary sticktoitiveness that I describe in Critique of Dialectical Reason. Above all, Che's a "doer"—he walks the talk, which is more than I can say for myself (ahem). I think I make my feelings clear when I say, "You know how much I admire Che Guevara. In fact, I believe that the man was not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age: as a fighter and as a man, as a theoretician who was able to further the cause of revolution by drawing his theories from his personal experience in battle" (source).
That Jean Genet (French poet, novelist, essayist, playwright and film maker) was one of a kind—a dissenter, a hot mess, a convict, a saint and a sinner. His story was delightfully vulgar but infinitely meaningful, provocative yet existential. His whole outlaw shtick just gets me every time.
My book looks at Jean in terms of "being" and "doing" and how these two impulses never reconcile: "Like the mad needle of a compass, he [Genet] oscillates perpetually from act to gesture, from doing to being, from freedom to nature without ever stopping." It's all so complicated that it takes me 625 pages to make my point, which is this: he was an authentic existentialist, embracing a life of thieving and perving out with gusto. He decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated him. Good on you, Genet.