Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century by John Gerassi

Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century is Sartre’s official biography written by John Gerassi and published in 1989. The book is based on a series of long interviews and conversations between Gerassi and Sartre that were conducted 1974 – 1979. Sartre chose Gerassi to be his official biographer and gave him access to his personal files and unpublished material. It is a fascinating book and, for a biography, unusually honest and critical. Gerassi and Sartre discuss the contradictory and difficult relationship between political commitment and bourgeois society, which Sartre undeniably was a part of.

Nearly 30 years have passed since this book was first published but it is still highly relevant and touches upon many issues and questions that political activists today face and struggle with; what does it mean to live a privileged life while fighting for justice? What is genuine political commitment? What can we do within the given conditions that we are bound by?

»It is always those who have power who say ’calm down, let’s talk rationally, let’s be sensible’,« he [Sartre] once explained to a couple of my students. »It is always those who have power who insist that being emotional is being weak. In the home, the powerful are the male. That’s why the best way for a housewife to argue against her calm, rational ’provider’ is to throw the plate of rice in his face.« Then, because the two young women I had brought around to his apartment were Americans, he added, »In your country, all your teachers tell you to think carefully and try to be objective, n’est-ce pas? They refuse to admit the possibility that if you are white and rich you will never think – hear me – think, reason, not just feel, but think like a person who is black and poor. They want you to keep looking at a situation from all sides, as they say. That’s so you say, ’On the one hand this; on the other, that.’ That’s so you do nothing.« Then, after a pause to fortify this point, he concluded: »If you accept to play the game by the rules set up by those who own or control the board, you will always lose.« page 6 

»Now answer me this. During this coming period, when the vast majority of intellectuals […] will turn themselves inside out to be apolitical, which means right-wingers; when they will fawn all over the structuralists and so-called post-structuralists as an excuse to be ’detached’; during these coming years, when they will deliberatively rediscover the gulag and other Stalin atrocities in order to avoid talking of America’s current atrocities; when they will use all their literary power to convince the world that anti-Stalinism is equivalent to pro-Americanism; in short, during the foreseeable future, when socialists will justify exploitation, murder, and nuclear brinkmanship, what will get people to read me?« page 23

With Sartre, there were no escapes, no ivory towers, no retreats into false ”objectivity.” Those of us who had no power knew he fought for us and with us. Those who had knew they could never say, ”I can’t help it.” The job of the intellectual, Sartre said over and over, is to criticize, to oppose, to denounce. page 36

»We walked around Paris, for hours, for days. We discovered flora and fauna, stones, and we were moved to tears when the first neon advertisements were turned on. We thought the world was new because we were new in the world – Paris was our bond, we loved each other through the crowds of the gray city, under the light skies of its springtimes. We walked, we talked, we invented our own language and intellectual slang, such as all students create.« page 68

»I supported the Spanish Republic, totally, absolutely. I thought of myself as an antifascist through and through. But I had never suffered. I had always been certain of my future. Commitment for me, like for any bourgeois intellectual who has not been faced with misery, poverty, torture or death, was purely cerebral.« page 134

John Gerassi, Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1989)