Men make their own history

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.
Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

A WRITER as widely read as Sartre invariably suffers from a contempt bred by familiarity. Long after his death in April 1980, the reactions elicited by mention of his name range from adulation to dismissal, with many of the latter in the vein of what Sartre once described as the superiority of live dogs to dead lions. For a man who wanted above all to write for his time, dismissal is the harshest of condemnations: “It seems to be generally
accepted that the Sartrean problematic has by now been essentially relegated to the past. Smiles are quick to surface whenever anyone is still interested in Sartre or still writes about him, as though the person were all but suspect of still being with’ Sartre, of having stuck with him” (Denis
Hollier, The Politics of Prose: Essay on Sartre, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], p. 92). The quick smiles are a professional hazard, a result of the notoriety Sartre maintained by choice. His detractors—many of them the “live dogs” noted above—
would do well to note Sartre’s awareness of this notoriety and the strategic uses to which he puts it. Instead of asking ironically whether the Sartrean problematic is passé or whether Sartre has faded as a key figure of postwar modernity, I want to cast my comments around the question of what it might mean to read Sartre today. In so doing, I want to echo the heightened sense of history and circumstance Sartre confers on the acts of writing and
reading throughout the four texts in the present volume, versions of which appeared in early issues of Les Temps 4 I Introduction modernes, the monthly Sartre started in 1945. The following pages are intended to trace the evolving concept of littérature engagée in the aftermath of World War II* Chronology provides a context and a first order of specificity. Whenever
possible, it serves to ground the issues of theory that Sartre’s postwar writings on writing engage directly or by implication.

The secondary literature on Sartre is overwhelming and I make no claims to do more than address selected issues. We would be hunters of meaning, we would speak the truth about the world and about our own lives. Sartre, “Merleau-Ponty” (i960)

March 1941: Jean-Paul Sartre returns to civilian life in Paris after eight months of captivity by the Germans. Almost immediately, he recruits students at the Lycée Pasteur and the Ecole Normale Supérieure for Socialisme et Liberté (Socialism and Freedom), a small cell of intellectual
résistants including Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques-Laurent Bost, and Jean Pouillon. The group holds grand visions. If—as Simone de Beauvoir puts it in The Prime of Life—the democracies win the war, the French left will need a new program. But if, on the other hand, the Axis nations defeat the Allies, it will be necessary to see that Germany loses the peace. Party politics intervene when the Communists, fearful of a potential rival in Sartre, spread rumors that he is a German agent.

  • I have retained the original French in place of the expression “engaged literature” used by Bernard Frechtman. My alternative translation is “committed writing.” This for two reasons: First, the transitive usage of the verb “commit” denotes the conscious assertion of value that the concept is intended to convey. Second, “writing” rather than “literature” because the program set forth in “What Is Literature?” involves practices and
    media—journalism, radio, film—beyond traditional conceptions. On the
    notion of commitment and/or engagement, see David L. Schalk, The Spectrum
    of Political Engagement: Mounter, Benda, Nizan, Brasillach, Sartre (Princeton:
    Princeton University Press, 1979) and my discussion below of Theodor
    Adorno, “Commitment,” New Left Review 87-88 (1974).
    Introduction \ 5
    number of friends and contacts are arrested, Sartre feels
    personally responsible and disbands the group in October
    Socialisme et Liberté allows Sartre to draft a constitution
    of some 120 articles mixing economics with a Utopian vision
    freely adapted from the writings of Marx and Proudhon.
    Although none of the ten reputed copies of the constitution
    survives the war, accounts by group members suggest that
    it addresses concerns ranging from parliamentary representation
    to military service and the division between judicial
    and executive branches of government. The lost constitution
    provides evidence that Sartre’s vision of a nonauthoritarian
    socialism precedes the postwar period. It
    supports Fredric Jameson’s view that Marxism coexists with
    Sartre’s existentialsm; it is not something he comes to
    afterward {Marxism and Form [Princeton: Princeton University
    Press, 1971], p. 207). Three years after Nausea, Sartre’s
    early attempts to lay bare the structures of consciousness
    articulate with issues of collective action and social