Situations I

Wassily Kandinsky, Intersecting Lines, 1923.


Commentary on the book by Jean-Paul Sartre

“In capitalist society men do not have lives: they have only destinies” (Sartre, Situations I, P. 40).

“Everything we see, everything we live incites us to say: 'This cannot last'” (Sartre, Situations I, P. 100).

A good periodization of contemporary French culture could not fail to mark the moment of radical rupture expressed in this inaugural volume of situations, available to the Brazilian reader in the beautiful translation by Cristina Prado. The essay on Faulkner that opens the collection leaves no doubt that we are facing ground zero, where the end of a process of liquidation of a kind of education (pulverized together with the world from which it is inseparable) coincides with the beginning of a new historical-cultural cycle.

A passage from this opening essay, written shortly before World War II in 1938, exposes the conditions in which ground zero was set: "Faulkner's humanism is certainly the only acceptable one - he hates our well-adjusted consciences, our chattering consciences. of engineers”.[I] This first outline of the figure of humanism in Sartre, which is already soaked in negativity, that is, as a refusal of “our well-adjusted consciences”, presupposes nothing more, nothing less, than the work undertaken by the Author since the beginning of the 1930s, the demolition of the foundation of official humanism that sustained the ideological edifice of interwar French society.

The great literary expression of this refusal, the character Roquentin in the novel the nausea, is constituted precisely in the fight against all the social and cultural ignominies of the French Third Republic, hated... to the point of nausea (as it was also by Ferdinand Bardamu, Céline's famous character in Journey to the End of the Night). The register that characterizes the thought of the first Sartre is, therefore, that of transgression. More precisely, transgression of the cultural codes of the establishment French academic.

Such explosive negativity could not, of course, have burst onto the French intellectual scene like a meteor. Formed within a more traditional university culture, Sartre was not predestined to be left in intellectual life. His “language of negativity” was able to erupt because a great historical crisis opened cracks in the foundation of traditional French culture. This base will only completely collapse with the War, the Occupation and the Resistance, but already in the conjuncture of political radicalization preceding the heavy artillery of our formernormalien he had found favorable ground to shake her irremediably.

In the face of the historical cataclysm, Sartre will say later, “the overflight of our predecessors”, who prayed for the “Primacy of the Spiritual” booklet, had become impossible.[ii] (Hence the meaning and function of Kafka's rediscovery in a France on the verge of collapse, especially if we think that his novels are, as Adorno observed, “the anticipated response to the constitution of a world where every contemplative attitude has become an outrageous sarcasm, because the permanent threat of catastrophe no longer allows anyone to be a neutral spectator”).[iii]

Thus, for Sartre's generation, the slogan launched by Jean Wahl in 1932 is imposed: “Towards the concrete”. But with which instruments? No stone remained unturned in the edifice of traditional French culture. Everything had to be reinvented. The first step was to knock on someone else's door. Falling from the sky of so-called eternal ideas (but which were as old as the Third Republic) towards earth, Sartre still had to cover so many other distances in search of theoretical instruments that would help him understand the present time.

Then begins the cycle of “voyages of discovery” (to use the expression with which Hegel defined the Phenomenology of Spirit), which takes the Author to cross the Rhine (in the opposite direction to that traveled by classical German philosophy more than a century before) and even the Atlantic, finding the classics of the American social novel. It is the result of these “journeys” that is being decanted in the rehearsals of Situations I. Written between 1933 and 1945, these essays were born under the sign of “modernity” (not by chance, the first humanism “accepted” by Sartre is, as we have seen, that of Faulkner). What does that mean?

From a philosophical point of view, “modernity” became possible for Sartre with the “discovery” of German phenomenology (the complementary step will be the rediscovery of Hegel, via Kojève) – which is masterfully exposed in the famous essay on Husserl that integrates Situations I. Philosophical “modernity” here means a break with modern philosophy in the Kantian sense, that is, the theory of knowledge, hegemonic in the French university (“the French philosophy that formed us knows almost nothing but epistemology”[iv]).

This rupture is, in Sartre's eyes, the essential condition for the flourishing of a concrete philosophy, first glimpsed in Husserl, who “never tires of affirming that things cannot be dissolved in consciousness”.[v] (We'll have to wait a little longer for Sartre to finally discover, through a Heidegger with the wrong sign, that Husserlian philosophy could not lead to true concreteness.) In this essay on Husserl, Sartre's achievement is twofold. On the one hand, in a final unceremonious farewell to the era when the Spiritual prevailed, the Author dissects the corpse of that ideology that had fed the intellectual elite of the Third Republic, before throwing the last shovel of whitewash at it.

On the other hand, in celebrating the “liberation”, via Husserl, of bourgeoisism of the “inner life” that imprisoned French thought, Sartre is already, at the same time, accomplishing another feat, this time a spectacular turn – converting the quiet German phenomenology into a radical philosophical activism “towards the concrete”, as attested by the words with the which closes the essay: “Husserl reinstalled horror and enchantment in things. (...) It is not in who knows what retreat that we will discover ourselves: it is on the road, in the city, in the middle of the crowd, thing among things, man among men”.[vi]

What Sartre is anticipating, in this essay written in 1933-1934 and published in 1939, is the end of a long “journey to the depths of the night”. Thus, the way is opened for the dazzling entry on the scene of Being and Nothingness, the great theoretical expression of Modern Times. When we read in this Essay on phenomenological ontology – “we must start from a certain realism”,[vii] we will already be able to identify the terms of this “realism”: a non-contemplative philosophy; a philosophy that, instead of a mere chain of concepts, is able to apprehend living experience. In the article on Bataille, written shortly after Being and Nothingness, which also includes Situations I, Sartre observes: “Bataille's error is in believing that modern philosophy has remained contemplative. He visibly misunderstood Heidegger.”[viii]

The other aspect of this discovery of philosophical “modernity” is the discovery of literary “modernity” – in addition to Kafka, the classics of the American social novel, particularly Faulkner and Dos Passos, to which three of his essays are dedicated. Situations I. But, like the philosophical materials brought from across the Rhine, the literary materials that Sartre brought back from America were also subjected to a veritable mutation on the return trip. All the more so because in the end these materials will all be mixed together, and the recycling of German phenomenology will be guided by narrative models from overseas – hence the mixture of Heidegger and American novelists present in several essays of this collection, and which will be one of the pillars of the structure of Being and Nothingness.

This immense mortar of philosophical-literary material also includes, at its base, historical material. By emphasizing, for example, the “phenomenon of the dissolution of time” in the American novel, in one of the essays by Situations I, "About The sound and the fury: temporality in Faulkner”, Sartre is also diagnosing the “dissolution” of a certain historical time. At the end of this essay, written on the eve of the war, in June 1939, we read: “How can one explain that Faulkner and so many other authors have chosen this absurdity that is so little novelistic and so little true? I believe that we must look for the reason for this in the social conditions of our present life. (…) Everything we see, everything we experience urges us to say: 'This cannot last' – and yet change is not even conceivable, except in the form of cataclysm. (...) Faulkner employs his extraordinary art to describe this world that dies of old age and our suffocation”.[ix]

Framing a novel that flourished on another continent in the acute (very acute, incidentally) angle of national life, Sartre's essay ends up reconstructing the movement of his own political present, giving it a narrative form. A narrative that exposes the historical need for death due to “old age” in a certain world and, in doing so, anticipates the profound social transformations of the time. This conjunctural stylization of a classic of American modernism, reinterpreted based on the revelations of a moment of national catastrophe, is also vividly felt in the essay on Dos Passos. But here there is much more than a conjunctural stylization: what we see reflected in the mirror that Sartre places in front of Dos Passos is already the essence of Sartre's thought.

It is worth noting the terms of Sartre's praise of Dos Passos: “His art is not gratuitous” – “it is about showing us this world here, ours. In show it only, without explanations or comments. (…) Now, when describing these well-known appearances, with which everyone accommodates themselves, Dos Passos makes them unbearable. It outrages those who have never been indignant, it amazes those who are not astonished by anything.”[X] Dos Passos' technique aims, “very consciously”, to “lead us to revolt”: “Let's close our eyes and try to remember our own lives, let's try to remember them so: we will suffocate. It is this helpless suffocation that Dos Passos wants to express. In capitalist society men do not have lives: they have only destinies. This he never says, but always makes us feel; he insists, discreetly, prudently, until he makes us want to break with our destinies. Here we are, revolted: your objective has been achieved. Revolted behind the mirror. For it is not what the rebel of this world wants to change here: he wants to change the condition present of men, the one that is done on a day-to-day basis”.[xi]

But this is not Sartre's point of view. engagement what do we see prefigured there? This consciousness driven by the negating action of the existing, which our author sees embodied in the novels of Dos Passos, before being re-elaborated via Kojève, would later receive, on the occasion of his political baptism, the name of Intellectual. Indeed, what is an intellectual in Sartre's view if not someone capable of angering “those who were never indignant”? It should also be noted, in praising Dos Passos, the emphasis on revolt, in which Sartre can already be seen sixty eight de On a raison de revolter.

And the emphasis on the possibility of “breaking with our destinies”, that is, with “the condition present of men” – the “capitalist society”, in which “life” becomes “fate”. Here is the vanishing point where the philosophical and literary “modernity” rediscovered by Sartre converge. With the doors and windows open to the world, after the rupture with the French spiritualist philosophy, what the Author saw was the dead end of life in capitalist society – a life at the behind closed doors, in which we “suffocated”. This rupture indicated, therefore, the need for another, more radical one, something beyond the foolishness of bourgeois life (if we want to put the problem in Flaubert's terms, of whose “anti-bourgeois aesthetic” Sartre will always be heir).

By blowing up the framework of institutional philosophy, our author will understand that it was only a part of the decayed skeleton of the forms of the bourgeois world, whose end French Existentialism, reactivating the combustion of interwar avant-gardeism, will try to precipitate. This 1938 essay already exposes the central support beam of all of Sartre's work: the internal nexus between negative thinking and the project of social emancipation. Since the first Sartre, what is at stake is not a philosophical or literary project “for itself”, so to speak, but rather a project – totalizing and totalizing – of radical change in society. (Seen from this angle, in which social revolution and interwar literary and artistic vanguards converge, it makes sense to think of French Existentialism as one of the moments of the “extraordinary final flowering of the impulse of high modernism”, as proposed by Fredric Jameson.[xii])

It is in the light of this immanent link between negative thinking and social emancipation that one must understand “the historical destiny of the essay” in Sartre, to use the title of the Preface by Bento Prado with which the Brazilian edition of Situations I offered the reader. That this destiny was sealed, in my opinion, by the presentiment of a “liberating moment”, in the language of Being and Nothingness, which sprouted in the very heart of this work traditionally read as “pure philosophy” (in fact, nothing more impure than this Essay on phenomenological ontology, entirely contaminated by the world), despite the intention of the author to unfold it into a Moral, all this says a lot about the historical sense of the evolution of genres in Sartre.

The consolidation of the essay (as a form) along the itinerary of Sartre's work, whether in situations (a set of “criticism and politics”, in the author’s definition, and which he considers the most significant part of his work), whether in “concrete monographs” such as Saint Genet e The Family Idiot, it is a symptom of the (historical) exhaustion of traditional philosophical and literary forms. This is what can be arrived at from the problem suggested by Bento Prado.

What is already assumed in the tests of Situations I it is the change of register of philosophy and literature in the social conditions of the contemporary world. The bias that permeates both the philosophical and literary “modernity” recycled there is that of relegation. It is, in fact, a question of replacing “high” philosophy, which hovers in the sky of ideas, and “high” literature (the “noble” writing according to the canons of the Academy) for something (which is equivalent to saying: a form) attentive to what in fact interests everyone, that is, to the height (very low) of the prosaic revelation of existence.

The necessary consequence of this debasement will be to plunge the intellectual into the raw denim of day-to-day reality. This emancipatory desublimation could only bring in a new form, which is just dawning in these essays of Situations I. What Sartre favors in the journalistic technique of American novelists, particularly Dos Passos – the fact of merely “showing” or “describing” “this world here” – is not very far from the conditions in which classical German idealism (read: if Phenomenology of Spirit), already duly amalgamated with the Heideggerian “description”, will return to the forefront of the philosophical scene in Being and Nothingness: downgraded to the down-to-earth level of the problems of an all-too-human world, and reread as a plot that “shows”, in the most descriptive and least speculative sense possible, the drama of the freedom of the Human Condition in an extreme historical situation.[xiii]

No wonder that the next step was inaugurated with the Reportage, the genre with which Sartre will try to account, in the spur of the moment, for a crucial historical event for his generation, the Parisian insurrection of August 1944, and which had been rediscovered in the Carnets of war drôle, before being raised to the status of a major genre in the inaugural manifesto of the “Sartre years”, the “Presentation des Temps Modernes".

It is still the elan of this period of revolutionary effervescence which, placing the need for critical and negative thinking on the agenda, allowed Sartre, in the 1945 essay that closes Situations I, to extract from Cartesian philosophy a mixture of activism (“In the beginning was Action”), freedom and radical negativity (even if Descartes did not take “his theory of negativity to the end”).[xiv] In this “catastrophic and revolutionary” Descartes, as defined in the Carnets of war drôle, we can hardly recognize the dogmatic and systematic philosophy of the XNUMXth century, immersed in the turmoil produced by the vertiginous acceleration with which Sartre was reconstructing a historical conjuncture itself radicalized and greatly accelerated by the “force of things”. But this so “dated” Sartre is perhaps the most current of all – particularly in cultures like ours, with a chronic “negativity deficit”.[xv]

*Cristina Diniz Mendonca she holds a doctorate in philosophy from USP.

Enlarged version of the ear that integrates the Brazilian edition of Situations I, also published in the journal Marxist Criticism  no 23.


Jean paul Sartre. Situations I. Translation: Cristina Prado. São Paulo, Cosac & Naify, 312 pages.


[I] Sartre, J.-P., “Sartoris, by William Faulkner”, in Situations I - Literary Criticism, São Paulo, Cosac Naify, 2005, p. 33.

[ii] Sartre, J.-P., “Qu'est-ce que la littérature? ”, Situations II, Paris, Gallimard, 1948, pp. 242-243.

[iii] Adorno, TW, Notes on literature, Paris, Flammarion, 1984, p. 42.

[iv] Sartre, J.-P., “A fundamental idea of ​​Husserl's phenomenology: intentionality”, in Situations I, op. cit., p. 57.

[v] Ibid., P. 55.

[vi] Ibid., P. 57.

[vii] Sartre, J.-P. L'Être et le Néant, Essai d'ontologie phenoménologique, Paris, Gallimard, 1943, p. 362.

[viii] Sartre, J.-P., “A New Mystic”, in Situations I, op. cit., p. 162.

[ix] Sartre, J.-P., “About The sound and the fury: temporality in Faulkner”, in Situations I, op. cit., p. 100.

[X] Sartre, J.-P., “About John dos Passos and 1919", In Situations I, op. cit., pp. 37-38; author's emphasis.

[xi] Ibid., pp. 40-41; author's emphasis.

[xii] Jameson, F. Post-Modernism – The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, São Paulo, Attica, 1996, p. 27.

[xiii] See about my doctoral thesis The Myth of Resistance: historical experience and philosophical form in Sartre (an interpretation of L'Être et le Néant), São Paulo, FFLCH/USP, 2001.

[xiv] Sartre, J.-P., “Cartesian Liberty”, in Situations I, op. cit., pp. 295 and 299.

[xv] The terms are by Paulo Eduardo Arantes, but the diagnosis is by Antonio Candido (refracted through the prism of Roberto Schwarz). Cf. Arantes, PE, “Intellectual Adjustment”, in O Fio da Meada – A conversation and four interviews about philosophy and national life, São Paulo, Paz e Terra, 1996, p. 315.

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