Sartre and the press



Introductory note from the author to the newly released book

This book examines the unique trajectory in the press of the French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (21/06/1905-15/04/1980), encompassing the expressive journalistic activity over four decades and his reflections on the role of the media. information in society, against the background of political disputes, ideological variants, socioeconomic problems, cultural climates and the controversies of the time.

Not even opponents clinging to their own shadows would dare to disagree: Sartre was one of the most influential intellectuals of the XNUMXth century – “our most extraordinary comrade in arms”, according to the philosopher István Mészáros. His vast work includes a vocation to think beyond norms and standards, a commitment to freedom and the fight against alienation, exploitation and oppression. The whole world, “living totalities” and lasting or transitory certainties – everything had to be called into question, under the sign of unsubdued imagination, critical awareness and transforming action.

In the glow of youth in Paris, journalist Ignacio Ramonet witnessed the Sartrean tsunami: “Sartre was the central philosopher of French thought between the post-war period and the end of the 1970s. a Parisian fashion, with its magazines like Modern Times; its interpreters like Juliette Gréco; its mythical places like the Café de Flore and the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. For any restless young person of the 1950s, when the great anti-colonial struggles and the emancipation of the peoples of the Third World began, Sartre was an unavoidable reference”.

From the end of the Second World War, Sartre preached and practiced the engajamento as duty and destiny in the struggle for human emancipation. Taking sides meant taking a stand “on the side of those who want to change both the social condition of man and the conception he has of himself”, as he wrote in the presentation of the magazine Modern Times, in October 1945. Resistance to dominating rationality and the “ethical force of contestation” – a beautiful expression by the essayist Alfredo Bosi (1936-2021) – are consequent attitudes of intellectuals who question the gears of power.

According to Sartre, the primary function should be to awaken consciences, motivating men not to resign themselves to the injustices around them. What distinguished him as a spokesman for questioning reason in a scenario where public intellectuals exercised, in the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), “the great demonic force of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries: namely, the belief that political action was the way to improve the world.”

Sartre did not escape dilemmas, contradictions, mistakes and illusions. However, it should be noted that, for someone moved by expectations of the future, giving in to impulses and insisting on what seemed impossible were imperative. “I live at varying speeds ranging from eighty kilometers per hour to a thousand. My restlessness translates into a need to see more and more ahead”, he noted during the trip on the fast train on the way to summer in Venice, adding that, at times, he felt like someone diving into the labyrinth without distinguishing what lies ahead. , until you manage to regain your composure to take turns more slowly.

It was not limited to the field of philosophy; he explored meanings in literature, theater, essayism, biography, memorialism, cinema and even music (as a lyricist for Juliette Gréco, the existentialist muse). In parallel, he pursued a systematic and insatiable activity: journalism. Convinced of the need to overcome the walls of erudition, he sought to disseminate his ideas to broader audiences, on different media platforms. He was a literary critic, columnist, reporter, editor, correspondent, radio debater, editorialist, editor and editorial director.

The objective was to interfere in the clash of ideas in favor of human rights, democracy and the socialist horizon. And with that in mind, he didn't spare days and hours to produce texts or give hundreds of interviews to periodicals in different countries, many of them conducted by astute journalists who extracted hot interpretations of events and revelations about his troubled itinerary.

Interventions in newspapers and magazines encompass periods of great effervescence, characterized by conflicts, antagonisms, crises, insurgencies for claims, productive modernization, changes in lifestyles, profound inequalities and discrimination. This complex picture led me to insert the study of the press in the historical, social and existential circumstances that influenced Sartre's journalistic experiences – aware that his ideological and cultural meanings are irreducible to the vicissitudes of his personal journey. The correlation with each context has become a requirement, in the case of a man attached to his time. “We don't want to waste any of our time: perhaps there are more beautiful times, but this is ours; we only have this life to live, in the middle of this war, this revolution perhaps ”, he stressed in the presentation of Modern Times.

The book consists of a prologue, two parts and an epilogue. In the first part, I discuss Sartre's intellectual production before, during and after the war, until the last days, highlighting his multiple contributions both in the so-called mainstream press and in innovative publications (as director of Modern Times), “revolutionary” (the Maoist tabloids in the early 1970s) and counter-hegemonic (as founder and director of the daily Libération, in 1973).

In the second part, combined and complementary, I try to highlight, on the one hand, Sartre's critique of commodified journalism and its perspectives on freedom of expression and informative pluralism, in confrontation with the mechanisms of ideological control of the communication vehicles; and, on the other hand, I discuss the dilemmas of the alternative projects to which Sartre joined; I focus on the loopholes he exploited to divulge divergences in relation to the order of capital; and I problematize, in the light of his critical warnings, the role of “media intellectuals” in opinion formation.

If the reader proposed to me the challenge of an approximate definition, I would venture to say, without claiming to be definitive, that Sartre and the press it is located in the area of ​​moving borders between intellectual biography, sociopolitical chronicle, cultural history of the press and critical analysis of journalism. This mixture appeared to me conducive to tracing a profile of Sartre in the twin arena of the press and politics, even more so in ambiences crossed by battles for hegemony, exacerbated passions, yearnings for participation, revolutionary calls, barricades, breaches of values ​​and volcanic hopes.


the total intellectual

The writer, journalist and academic François Mauriac (1885-1970) died without altering the emblematic phrase about one of his rivals in the French intellectual life of the XNUMXth century, both awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: “Jean-Paul Sartre is the contemporary capital , the one we find at every crossroads of culture”. In fact, Sartre went down in cultural history as one of the capital personalities of his time, involved in the crossfire of thought and action. It was the greatest expression of existentialism – a philosophical doctrine that, in a synthesis of its formulation, contemplates the dilemmas of individual conscience, the meaning of existence, responsibility and the transformation of the human condition under the sign of freedom, with emphasis on the autonomy of choices and in the radical rejection of imposed values.

If we wanted to point out a single red line of intellectual intervention in much of the last century, it would be the one drawn by Sartre, as detailed by the philosopher and journalist Robert Maggiori: “He is present from beginning to end, crossing all the waves and waves of what Eric Hobsbawm called the “short XNUMXth century” and allowing himself to be crossed by them to make them the motives of his philosophical and literary work, of commitments and battles, sometimes won, sometimes lost, sometimes “failed”.

As a matter of fact, it would suffice to extract from it the agitated history of “companionship” with the French Communist Party or that of the relations of friendship and enmity, of complicity and rivalry that Sartre, for example, established with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron, Albert Camus or Claude Lefort, to reconstruct not only theoretical and political debates about freedom, alienation, pacifism, terror, colonialism, Stalinism, totalitarianism, but also from the defeat of Nazism to the fall of the Berlin wall, all the great earthquakes that made history and altered its course, such as the Liberation, the Cold War, the Indochina War, the Algerian War, the Vietnamese conflict, Budapest, the Prague Spring, May 68, the women's movement, Maoism, the birth of ecological awareness…

There was rarely indifference to their positions; on the contrary, several of them triggered unconditional adherence, irretractable disagreements or reluctant doubts. In the enrapturing post-war years, he managed to irritate Christians and Marxists by defending an atheistic existentialism, contrary to the dogmas of the Church, and by adopting the thesis of a “third way” between conservatism and Stalinism – which in the end did not succeed and gave way to the four-year alliance with the Communists. Misunderstandings and idiosyncrasies did not stop him from rejecting everything that seemed out of place, offensive to human dignity or offensive to individual and collective freedoms.

Sartre failed to challenge any sphere of power – whether in philosophical elaboration, literary creation or journalistic production, or in the course of conflicts that took him to the doors of factories, working-class neighborhoods, rallies, marches, universities, courts, security penitentiaries maximum and even palaces. He might not be successful in his initiatives or have to review what before seemed absolute certainty – but, in crucial situations, he did not sit idly by watching the sky waiting for the rains.

Sartre embodied the “total intellectual” – someone capable of acting on all fronts of critical thinking, assuming democratic convictions and causes. The singularity of the philosopher-writer-playwright-critical-journalist “consisted in making (…) converge around himself traditions and ways of being intellectual that had been progressively invented and instituted throughout the intellectual history of France” (Bourdieu). Close or not to balance, he combined reflections on being-being in the world and active participation in the public scene, in campaigns, manifestos, petitions and debates.

The unstable nature of social reality, conditioned by disparate aspirations, power correlations, disputes and upheavals, far from inhibiting or intimidating him, pushed him towards attempts at interpretation and confrontation. He constantly resorted to the media to break silences, challenge opinion monopolies and break up occasional consensuses. He practiced journalism convinced that the deserts of reality needed to be filled with reliable information and a diversity of points of view.

The “rarest and most precious” trait of the Sartrian model of the intellectual, according to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), was his willingness to go against bourgeois values, as in the “refusal of worldly powers and privileges (the Nobel Prize, for example)”, and to assert “the properly intellectual power and privilege of saying 'no' to all temporal powers”. Irresignation extended to the search for autonomy in the face of institutions that consecrate convenient “truths” as if they were biblical precepts.

Even though it is a relative autonomy, as we must consider the injunctions within the intellectual field in each situation, this bias distinguished Sartre from thinkers who submit to rigid dogmas. “My duty as an intellectual is to think, to think without restrictions, even at the risk of making mistakes,” he proclaimed. “I must not set limits within myself, and I must not allow any limits to be set for me.” The desire to cut ties did not save him from the unpleasantness and contradictions in his relations with the French Communist Party (PCF), which never formed a stable north; on the contrary, they were characterized by distances, approximations and ruptures.

Be that as it may, the audacity of opposing tutelary schemes of thought attracted generations of admirers and disciples. “We didn't think he [Sartre] was infallible, nor did we take him for a prophet”, pointed out the critic Edward Said (1935-2003). “But we admired the efforts he made to understand a situation, and ensure, if necessary, his support for a cause, without condescension or subterfuge” (Said). This was also how the young Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) perceived it. At the age of 18, in his last year of high school, he devoured the newly released Being and Nothingness: Phenomenological Ontology Essay – one of the classics of XNUMXth century philosophy and the cornerstone of Sartrean existentialism.

In the beautiful text “He was my master”, written twenty years later, the philosopher Deleuze explained what is perhaps a common feeling among those who recognize themselves, in part or in whole, in the vastness of Sartre: “Sadness of generations without “masters”. ”. Our teachers are not just public teachers, although we have a great need for teachers. By the time we reach adulthood, our masters are those who touch us with a radical novelty, those who know how to invent an artistic or literary technique and find ways of thinking that correspond to our modernity, that is to say, both to our difficulties and to to our diffuse enthusiasms. (...) Sartre was that for us (for the generation that was twenty years old at the time of Liberation). Who, at the time, knew how to say something new besides Sartre? Who taught us new ways of thinking? (...) The new themes, a certain new style, a new polemical and aggressive way of raising problems, all this came from Sartre”.

the notion of engajamento it translated the “new way of thinking” in France reborn with the civilizing victory over nazi-fascism. Sartre's voice rose among those who cultivated hope for an era of greater equality, justice and pacifism - which meant insisting on overcoming vicissitudes, fears and scarcity, as well as deepening democracy and opposing the ambitions imperialists.

in the presentation of Modern Times, Sartre wrote that “the 'engaged' writer knows that the word is action: he knows that to unveil is to change and that one cannot reveal oneself unless intending to change”. Is at What is literature? (1947), he added, saying that the committed writer “abandoned the impossible dream of making an impartial painting of society and the human condition”, and could not experience a situation without trying to change it. He resorted to an impactful image about the interference of literature in life: “Words, as Brice-Parrain says, are 'loaded pistols'. When [the writer] speaks, he shoots. (...) The function of the writer is to ensure that no one can ignore the world and consider himself innocent before it” (Sartre, 1993, p. 20-21).

Alain Badiou, who discovered the trail of lanterns lit by Sartre while still a philosophy student at École Normal Superior between 1956 and 1960, highlighted three points to qualify engagement as “the central subjective figure of what we could call, in one way or another, Sartre's morality, that is, the practical dimension of philosophical determination”. Namely, the commitment: (a) is at the service of a future that can be reached based on historical objectives (for example, peace, democracy, socialism) that are not assured, but that are inscribed in the horizon of the possible; (b) as a mobile space between two boundaries, it is not reducible to advertising or entertainment; (c) it is always the investment in an imbalance, in a rupture that accompanies a desired or announced change. In the Sartrian view, the notion of engagement presupposes awareness oriented towards the transformation of society, which involves shared identifications, objectives and movements. It cannot be confused with the apology of a saving action, nor with the propagandistic celebration of something positive. In the most precise sense, engagement is “a producer of possibilities, which is based on organized action, capable of freeing the collective conscience to the need for freedom” (Badiou).

Sartre's belief that freedom – “the only source of human greatness” – can only be experienced through nonconformity and revolt against injustice linked him to the oppressed and excluded. This alignment has to do with essential ethical-political perspectives: first, recognizing that the positions taken are associated with historical-social contingencies; second, to oppose the orthodoxies and impostures of power; third, to direct energies towards “unveiling the fundamental contradictions of society, class conflicts and, within the ruling class itself, an organic conflict between the truth that it claims for its enterprise and the myths, values ​​and traditions that it maintains and that it wants to transmit to the other classes to guarantee its hegemony” (Sartre, 1994, p. 30-31). In short, the demand for a freedom that restores “being in a world that crushes us” (p. 72).

When rereading the above passage, I remembered a passage that refers to the unusual feeling of writing about Sartre. In 1995, the then correspondent for FSP in Paris, Vinicius Torres Freire, commented that he was “a bit forgotten”. Philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the interviewee, reacted: “I don't think that Sartre has been forgotten. I think his literature and philosophy, oddly enough, have been forgotten. It is paradoxical, but Sartre, the character, the ideologue, the intellectual, the spokesperson, has by no means been forgotten”. Derrida recognized Sartre's importance in shaping him; as a young man, he considered him “the model” of a philosopher-writer. “In his books I discovered [Francis] Ponge, [Maurice] Blanchot, [Georges] Bataille. Then I distanced myself from his philosophy, I found his readings of Husserl and Heidegger insufficient, but I always had a lot of admiration and sympathy for him.” The journalist replied: "What's left then?" Derrida was categorical: “There was something in Sartre, a desire for justice, a generosity, which was not obliterated by the failures I mentioned. And this demand for justice, for real, his street militancy in 68 and later, in defense of world causes, all of this was stronger and greater than his work”.

Months earlier, Derrida had filled what the essayist and writer Silviano Santiago defined as “a scandalous hole” in the philosopher's career, by agreeing to sign an article about Sartre, about whom he had never written, in the commemorative edition of the fiftieth anniversary of his work. Modern Times. “The delivery day arrives, and I'm not ready. Was I ever prepared?” – thus Derrida began the text. Which led Silviano to ask: “Was anyone ever prepared to write about Sartre?”.

* Denis de Moraes, journalist and writer, he is a retired associate professor at the Institute of Art and Social Communication at Universidade Federal Fluminense. Author, among other books, of Old Graça: a biography of Graciliano Ramos (José Olympio).



Denis de Moraes. Sartre and the press. Rio de Janeiro, Mauad, 2022.


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