Wednesday, April 13, 2016

"Sure enough Sartre did have something for us: a prepared text of about two typed pages that – I write entirely on the basis of a twenty-year-old memory of the moment – praised the courage of Anwar Sadat in the most banal platitudes imaginable. I cannot recall that many words were said about the Palestinians, or about territory, or about the tragic past. Certainly no reference was made to Israeli settler-colonialism, similar in many ways to French practice in Algeria. It was about as informative as a Reuters dispatch, obviously written by the egregious Victor to get Sartre, whom he seemed completely to command, off the hook. I was quite shattered to discover that this intellectual hero had succumbed in his later years to such a reactionary mentor, and that on the subject of Palestine the former warrior on behalf of the oppressed had nothing to offer beyond the most conventional, journalistic praise for an already well-celebrated Egyptian leader. For the rest of that day Sartre resumed his silence, and the proceedings continued as before. I recalled an apocryphal story in which twenty years earlier Sartre had travelled to Rome to meet Fanon (then dying of leukemia) and harangued him about the dramas of Algeria for (it was claimed) 16 non-stop hours, until Simone made him desist. Gone for ever was that Sartre.

One further point. A few weeks ago I happened to catch part of Bouillon de culture, Bernard Pivot’s weekly discussion programme, screened on French television, and broadcast in the US a short time later. The programme was about Sartre’s slow posthumous rehabilitation in the face of continuing criticism of his political sins. Bernard-Henry Lévy, than whom in quality of mind and political courage there could scarcely be anyone more different from Sartre, was there to flog his approving study of the older philosopher. (I confess that I haven’t read it, and do not soon plan to.) He was not so bad really, said the patronising B-HL; there were things about him, after all, that were consistently admirable and politically correct. B-HL intended this to balance what he considered the well-founded criticism of Sartre (made into a nauseating mantra by Paul Johnson) as having always been wrong on Communism. ‘For example,’ B-HL intoned, ‘Sartre’s record on Israel was perfect: he never deviated and he remained a complete supporter of the Jewish state.’

For reasons that we still cannot know for certain, Sartre did indeed remain constant in his fundamental pro-Zionism. Whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against Israel’s injustice, or for some other reason, I shall never know. All I do know is that as a very old man he seemed pretty much the same as he had been when somewhat younger: a bitter disappointment to every (non-Algerian) Arab who admired him. Certainly Bertrand Russell was better than Sartre, and in his last years (though led on and, some would say, totally manipulated by my former Princeton classmate and one-time friend, Ralph Schoenman) actually took positions critical of Israel’s policies towards the Arabs. I guess we need to understand why great old men are liable to succumb either to the wiles of younger ones, or to the grip of an unmodifiable political belief. It’s a dispiriting thought, but it’s what happened to Sartre. With the exception of Algeria, the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make an impression on him, and whether it was entirely because of Israel or because of a basic lack of sympathy – cultural or perhaps religious – it’s impossible for me to say. In this he was quite unlike his friend and idol Jean Genet, who celebrated his strange passion for Palestinians in an extended sojourn with them and by writing the extraordinary ‘Quatre Heures à Sabra et Chatila’ and Le Captif amoureux."

Edward Said, Dairy


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