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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sartre On Collective Responsibilty And The Solace Of Optimism

Jean-Paul Sartre
Photo: El Mercurio

This paragraph from a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre echoes my feelings today for the West in general, and the United States in particular.

(Emphases are mine, as is the inserted footnote. For the sake of sheer sanity on my part, I removed the footnotes provided by the author. You can purchase the book for those.)

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"First Lie... Second Lie... Guilty. Double guilty." InMay 1957, with his negative version of "You're Terrific," Sartre also sounds the alarm on Algeria, or, rather, he re-emphasizes the message of a brochure that had been published a few months earlier, Des Rappelés témoignent, denouncing the looting and torture taking place in Algeria, revealing the full corruption of the French army in its colonial excesses. "We are sick, very sick," Sartre insists. "Feverish and prostrate, obsessed by old dreams of glory and the foreboding of its shame, France is struggling in the grip of a nightmare it is unable either to flee or decipher. Either we'll see things as they are or we will die." Sartre initiates a trial that involves the entire country. Invoking the specter of 1945 and "collective responsibility," he assumes the garb of the public prosecutor to stir up dormant cowardices, awaken good consciences, probe live wounds. In a few lines, he sketches the France of 1957, underlines the contrasts, points out the contradictions and exposes the famous "You're terrific," the formula of the year, as noxious, vulgar, obscene. In his article, Jean Nohain*, the magician of France, the perverse leader who injects the whole country with a lethargic serum, becomes the stand-in for the Moller government, which, aware of the torture occurring daily in Algeria, continues to sweep the dirt under the carpet. "Never evading any sacrifice, [the Mollet government] has set the Queen of England on the throne of France for three days. ...Meanwhile, however, in Algeria, a gang of stubborn men kept doing their job: there are no holidays for butchers." "The queen has left; now she is resting up at Windsor Castle. We remain silent, but we know those documents. How many mattresses will we have to pile up on the Place de la Concorde to make the world forget that children are being tortured in our name while we choose to remain silent?" This is a typically Sartrean parallel: Queen Elizabeth II, whose coronation, three years earlier, had been followed in all its obsolete pomp and circumstance by every Frenchman with a TV set, and Jean Nohain, requesting mattresses for the indigent Lambda family, become one and the same thing, and Sartre incriminates both. So, for the peace of mind of the French people, this painful African truth is supressed, along with other nightmares and collective shame. "We will be caught in an abominable trap," the writer predicts, "and what's more, in an attitude we have ourselves condemned." Indignation, exaltation, urgency -- "It's still time... It's still possible" -- before the final injunction: "Let's look at the truth, it will allow us either to condemn our crimes publicly or admit them lucidly... This is the evidence, this the horror, ours: we won't be able to see it without tearing it away from us and crushing it." Sartre will repeat this strong, urgent, outraged text often, with minor variations on the same theme, rasping obsessively on collective guilt, the disease of silence, playing this role, his role, to the hilt.
- Annie Cohen-Salal (1985). Sartre: A Life Random House (translation 1987). p. 364. ISBN 0-394-52525-6

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*Jean Nohain, French television personality/producer. A nudger of the nascent consumerism of the fifties, he used the catch-phrase "You're Terrific!" to infect his audiences with optimism. References to "mattresses" in the rest of this text refers to the French version of "Queen for a Day," that implored audiences to send consumer goods (i.e., mattresses) to the unfortunate families he featured.

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