The Clare Spark Blog

July 18, 2014

Sartre, existentialism, and red antisemitism

The Void Game ad

The Void Game ad

I have been reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s much lauded first novel Nausea (1938), followed by his canonical Anti-Semite and Jew (written ca. 1944).

It is difficult to imagine the younger Sartre as a future revolutionary socialist (though he presents himself, dubiously, as an anti-Stalinist) reading the novel, as compared to the wartime essay that nearly everyone quotes to the effect that society creates the Jew it needs for ideological purposes, i.e., actual Jewish behavior is irrelevant.

This blog continues the theme that I have developed on this website: it is increasingly difficult to separate social democrats from revolutionary socialists.
The early progressives made no secret of their counter-revolutionary goals, as I laid out here: https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. These conservative reformers, no less than New Dealers, were frank about their politics: proletarian internationalism was their monster, and in its place they offered a paternalistic, elite-led welfare state that would contain any hanky-panky from below.

But the Soviet Union did a sharp about face with the rise of the various (irrationalist) fascisms in Italy, Spain, and especially Germany. At first appalled by the slaughter of revolutionaries in China (see Harold Isaacs’s famous book) that prompted a sectarian assault upon “Social Fascists” after 1928, the Soviets suddenly made common cause with the bourgeoisie through Popular Front politics in 1935—as long as there were bourgeois anti-fascists, as seemed to be the case during the Depression years, and especially after prominent intellectuals took up the Loyalist cause in Spain.

Someone should have told Sartre that, for in his novel, playing the Nietzschean, perhaps, he added to the voices of the resolutely anti-bourgeois, anti-modern voices of trendy European philosophers—Husserl (?) and Heidegger to mention a few of the nihilists confronting “the death of God.” For “Roquentin” there was only the Void and the denial of progress, most importantly in the possibility of overcoming evil—the very staples of the Judeo-Christian world view (this Manichaeism is not a traditional Jewish belief: in “old-fashioned” Judaism,  humanity should seek to fix or rectify self-destructive behavior).

Roquentin, a writer, seems paranoid to me, certainly disoriented, and hostile to his own body. Here is a striking passage from the novel:
“The thing which was waiting was on the alert, it has pounced on me, it flows through me, I am filled with it. It’s nothing: I am the Thing. Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist.” (p.98, New Directions paperback, my emph.) What struck me reading this passage was his quick association between liberation and detachment. I could not help thinking of the lyrics of the old song “After You’ve Gone” (1928) which are quoted several times in the novel. It was made famous by [Jewish] Sophie Tucker (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAuCSSLC-bk), and other major pop singers, but in the novel, Sartre is moved by its imagined Jewish composer and its “Negress” songstress. (Turner Layton was not Jewish, but a black songwriter, as was his lyricist Henry Creamer (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turner_Layton.)

Layton-Creamer Goodbye Alexander

Layton-Creamer Goodbye Alexander

Sartre was born into a Catholic family, and early on in the novel, I took him for a lapsed Catholic—his world was that bleak and dessicated, while his body or Nature was that repulsive, as horrifying, perhaps as the mother figure/vagina that was the real Thing. What if he became a communist because that creed and its mystical dialectical materialism reattached him to an abstract cause that did not frighten him? [I may have confused Catholicism and Puritanism, although there are puritanical Catholics.]

Turn now to his influential essay written during the war years in France. Usually taken to be a philosemitic tract, condemning Europe for its pervasive antisemitism, I was startled to see how he ended it with a standard communist trope: the working class understands its situation in the material world and is free of antisemitism, while it is the (muddled?) bourgeoisie that uses “the Jew” as scapegoat, to deflect petit-bourgeois (lower middle class in today’s argot) discontent away from their masked masters. Jews escape their “inauthenticity,” he claims, by reading Hegel’s “Master and Slave,” and finding authenticity in revolt against the ever antisemitic bourgeois oppressor. Through communism, antisemitism will disappear.

In rereading Sartre’s essay I was struck by his attack on mob society (shades of Hannah Arendt), and the anomie [inflicted by cities and industrialization?]. An entire flood of academics, young and old, follow the nearly identical philosophy of Emile Durkheim/the Frankfurt School/critical theory/the New Left/counter-culture mystics seeking both attachment and detachment.

One wonders how many of them are similarly on the lam from Mom and her illicit sticky power in the modern world.

stickymothers

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