Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jean-Paul Sartre, antisemite

The argument of Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive is straightforward. Antisemitism is a specific and recognizable psychological posture in the world. It is a reaction against the fundamental human condition of freedom and contingency, and it takes the shape of a synthesizing manichean antirationalism. Antisemitism is, it goes without saying, an inauthentic way of being. Not, for all that, powerless. The most famous phase of Sartre’s argument is that it is ultimately the antisemite who makes the Jew (first clearly state p 83, but see also 112, 123-4, 167, 170, 176). The word and the condition are fixed onto certain human beings, who are thus forced to confront Jewishness as their situation. Many respond inauthentically to their condition, and Sartre, in what is probably the part of the book to which people most object, describes in great detail the various well-known traits of ‘the Jew’ (relation to money, social climbing, and so on) as attempts to disavow and escape their situation. For instance, money is important to (inauthentic) Jews because it is related to abstraction (pp 156-60) and thus to an escape from the particularity thrust upon them. Although there is some typically daring and penetrating psychological analysis here (particularly, I think, around the notion of flesh), this is all very close to the edge of having simply accepted that ‘Jews are that way,’ that is, to have given up a great deal too much already. Although Sartre claims to pass no moral judgment on those unable to live authentically, of course the goal, and the only real way to escape psychological distortion, is to authentically assume both one’s freedom and one’s situation. This is the task of Jews themselves—but, and here Sartre quotes Richard Wright—there isn’t a Jewish problem, there’s an antisemitic problem. Ultimately Sartre feels that only the revolution will genuinely put an end to this—and here is yet another of the series of comparisons between the worker-bourgeois and the jew-antisemite dyads. This was also although I’m not sure Sartre would have known this, Marx’s answer. Until the revolution comes, though, there are many ways to act against antisemitism, but essentially through collective propaganda. Form leagues against antisemitism, make it illegal to say antisemitic things, use the school systems. Make everyone understand that, in a word, antisemitism hurts us all.

In the end, this is a remarkably French-republican response. Of course Sartre is clear that he is speaking specifically about France, the situation of French Jews and French antisemites. Although it would be useful to place this book in Sartre’s broader development, I think it would also be interesting to be precise about the tensions in it between republican-coded universalism (the famous last lines: “Pas de Français ne sera libre tant que les Juifs ne jouiront pas de la plénitude de leurs droits. Pas un Français ne sera en sécurité tant qu’un Juif, en France et dans le monde entier, pourra craindre pour sa vie” p 189) and the drive to the concrete implicit in Sartre’s whole philosophy (here represented by his peculiar notion of “libéralisme concret” p 181). I wonder if this book, written in the immediate aftermath of the war, isn’t really best regarded as a document of Popular Front era non-communist left republicanism.

Since it would be so easy to show in a facile way how Sartre reproduces the antisemitism he sets out to criticize (it would be less easy, but still possible, to do so seriously), I want finally to give a chunk of text from the end of Sartre’s psychological sketch of the inauthentic Jew.

Tel est donc cet homme traqué, condamné à se choisir sur la base de faux problèmes et dans une situation fausse, privé du sens métaphysique par l’hostilité menaçante de la société qui l’entour, acculé à un rationalisme de désespoir. Sa vie n’est qu’une longue fute decant les autres et devant lui-même. On lui a aliéné jusqu’à son propre corps, on a coupé en deux sa vie affective, on l’a réduit à poursuivre dans un monde qui le rejette, le rêve impossible d’une fraternité universelle. A qui la faute ? Ce sont nos yeux qui lui renvoient l’image inacceptable qu’il veut se dissimuler. Ce sont nos paroles et nos gestes – toutes nos paroles et nos gestes, notre antisémitisme mais aussi bien notre libéralisme condescendant – qui l’ont empoisonné jusqu’aux moelles ; c’est nous qui le contraignons à se choisir juif, soit qu’il se fuie, soit qu’il se revendique, c’est nous qui l’avons acculé au dilemme de l’inauthenticité ou de l’authenticité juive. Nous avons créé cette espèce d’hommes qui n’a de sens que comme produit artificiel d’une société capitaliste (ou féodale), qui n’a pour raison d’être que de servir de bouc émissaire à une collectivité encore prélogique. Cette espèce d’hommes qui témoigne de l’homme plus que toutes les autres parce qu’elle est née de réactions secondaires à l’intérieur de l’humanité, cette quintessence d’homme, disgrâciée, déracinée, originellement vouée à l’inauthenticité ou au martyre. Il n’est pas un de nous qui ne soit, en cette circonstance, totalement coupable et même criminel ; le sang juif que les nazis ont versé retombe sur toutes nos têtes. (pp 167-8)

Strong words. This is a species of radical responsibility that, I think, today is entirely without moral force. Certainly the left has been unable to use it to their advantage. ‘Collective responsibility’ has, in general, been kept out of political discourse. It would be good to think about why and how this took place.

Perhaps it is simply so radical and so obviously true that it becomes meaningless. The sharpest formulation: we are all responsible for the system of global exploitation and misery for which the word ‘capitalism’ usually stands. This easily comes to seem like a morally impossible situation. It sounds a great deal like the anarchist justifications for random violence of the 1890s. This would be the beginning of a long discussion of the various life-style leftisms that exist today, and how the very massiveness of the situation makes an essentially aesthetic (not even ethical) response the most apparently sensible one. Although, if I am interested in the difficulty of fusing an ethic of personal freedom and responsibility with a Marxist historical and economic perspective, then I am in danger of sitting down to read The Critique of Dialectical Reason.

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