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French Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century by Bernard Henri Levy (Polity Press) 'A whole man, mode of all men, worth all of them, and .any one of them worth him' This was how Jean-Paul Sartre characterized himself at the end of his autobiographical study, Words. And Bernard-Henri Lévy shows how Sartre cannot be understood without taking into account his relations with the intellectual forebears and contemporaries, the lovers and friends, with whom he conducted o lifelong debate. His thinking was essentially a tumultuous dialogue with his whole age and himself. He learned from Gide the art of freedom, and how to experiment with inherited fictional forms. He was a fellow-traveller of communism, and yet his relations with the Party were deeply ambiguous. He was fascinated by Freud but trenchantly critical of psychoanalysis. Beneath Sartre's complex and ever-mutating political commitments, Lévy detects a polarity between anarchic individualism on the one hand, and a longing for absolute community that brought him close to totalitarianism on the other. Lévy depicts Sartre as a man who could succumb to the twentieth century's catastrophic attraction to violence and the false messianism of its total political solutions, while also being one of the fiercest critics of its illusions and shortcomings.

 From Publishers Weekly
In this impenetrable rhapsody to the apotheosis of French intellectualism, Sartre emerges as a force of nature: a novelist comparable to Faulkner and Joyce; a thinker whose existentialism rivaled Marxism and Freudianism for sway over the modern mind; a political activist whose mistakes are grander than others' successes; a great (though technically lousy) lover whose countless betrayals of Simone de Beauvoir only cemented their soul bond; "a tremor, a torrent, a tidal wave." Levy, a French philosopher and writer, assumes readers are as steeped in Sartriana as he is and so dispenses with biographical context and narrative thread in favor of a hop-scotching thematic treatment, full of obscure references. He avoids any systematic development of Sartre's philosophy, indulging instead in vapid color-commentary (Sartre's philosophical writings were "a series of raids, offensives, commando operations") and opaque ruminations ("Truth is a very long and complex movement in which a 'true' which is no longer 'subject' but 'substance' emerges from itself..."). His denunciations of Sartre's "Stalinist cretinism" are more coherent, but his insights into Sartre's politics ("there were two Sartre's...almost at war") remain banal. Essentially a 450-page love letter, the book overflows with fawning endearments, petulant reproaches and intimate allusions to epiphanies and quarrels that outsiders will not be able to grasp. Unfortunately, in the haze of grandiloquent verbiage with which Levy surrounds every facet of Sartre's life ("it was in order to have big ideas, to create huge colossal things, that...he had to drug himself") the man and his ideas are lost. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc

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