Once the public freely accepts that someone is "great," that conviction becomes impossible to dislodge. Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher, novelist, playwright and self-promoter, proved this axiom.
In the 1940s, scholars said he was great, journalists reported on his greatness, and teachers began telling students he was great. That did it. Until he died in 1980, no matter how stupid or callous his public statements, he wore the cloak of greatness.
When faced with an ethical question, he was never overly fastidious. During the German occupation of France in the Second World War, he accepted a teaching job that was vacant because his predecessor was fired for being Jewish. For several years, he flourished as a novelist and playwright, producing work the Nazis chose not to censor.
After the war, he developed an affection for communist despots. Following an official trip to the Soviet Union in 1954, he came home to announce that he found more freedom in the U.S.S.R. than anywhere else in the world. "It's true that I thought well of it," Sartre recalled later, "but that's because I kept myself from thinking ill of it."
The mind of the fellow traveller has never been better articulated: Sartre gave himself a temporary lobotomy so that he could stay on Moscow's side in the Cold War. Had he told the truth, he would have lost friends and diluted his greatness in pro-Soviet circles. In Cuba in the 1960s, he met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. When Guevara was killed, Sartre called him the most complete human being of the age.
During Africa's struggles for independence, Sartre encouraged colonial rebels to kill Europeans. The Algerians, fighting France, embraced his views. This made him proud. Non-violent struggle would have been useless, he said, because the French would never have made a fair agreement with the Arabs. Violence won Algeria's freedom. Sartre thought this change made everything just fine for the Algerians, many of whom have been trying ever since to enter the country from which they liberated themselves.
Sartre's views changed sometimes, but only from one version of leftism to another. As he said late in life, "When I use the term 'right wing' for me it means dirty bastards."
He was always a favourite writer of people who didn't read him but liked to read about him. For instance, they read that when he was arrested as part of a political mob during the chaos of 1968, president Charles de Gaulle ordered him released. "You don't arrest Voltaire," de Gaulle said. Being mentioned in the same breath with Voltaire moved Sartre up to a higher level of greatness.
Following the Munich massacre of 1972, in which the Palestinians killed 11 Olympic athletes from Israel, Sartre said it was wrong for journalists to treat the killings as a scandal. Great or not, he was capable of a certain swinishness.
Sartre, 27 years in the grave, remains with us. This month brings a paperback version of the most peculiar book Sartre had anything to do with -- Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews (University of Chicago Press), a series of conversations with his assistant, Benny Levy. Sartre was blind but mentally alert; he had his words read aloud to him several times so that he could change whatever sounded wrong.
His writing often dwelt on despair; existential angst was his speciality. But he told Levy this never reflected his feelings. "I talked about it because other people were talking about it, because it was fashionable." And what about anguish, a similar subject of his? "I have never known anguish." He wrote about it because other people were writing about it. "It was fashionable. Everyone was reading Kierkegaard then."
Happens often with philosophers, Sartre said. "They talk from hearsay about some idea, they give it importance; then, little by little, they stop talking about it because they realize they've merely picked it up from other people."
He seemed to be dismissing much of the work that made him great. When the interviews were published, Sartre's admirers were horrified. Simone de Beauvoir, who always felt she owned at least a 50% stake in Sartre's greatness, accused Levy of exploiting the old guy's weakness, like a potential heir persuading a dying billionaire to change his will at the last moment.
But the material appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur while Sartre was alive, and he confirmed all of it. Hope Now stands as his final testament -- confused and sometimes silly, perhaps, but no more so than the rest of his ideas.