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What was at the center of Sartre’s sometimes mercurial passions and obsessions? Perhaps it was less a rejection of personalities and movements that it was a devotion to something which likely was not always apparent: the facilitation of an organic dialogue on how best to steer humanity toward acknowledgement of the ways it engineered unspeakable tragedies and why it is imperative we accept collective responsibility for correcting them.
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In this, he was much more a world citizen, or internationalist, than a nationalist. Cohen-Solal demonstrates as much through accounts of his physical and psychic immersion into different cultural and political environments as a traveler, and through applied adjustments of his literary focus as an engaged philosopher. Referring to the aftermath of a 1945 trip to the United States:
“What Is Literature?, Anti-Semite and Jew, The Respectful Prostitute, these are some of Sartre’s works that in the months to come, deal with the reality he has discovered in America. His recent awareness of the black problem [Jim Crow racism] is enhanced by his friendship with the American writer Richard Wright, whose autobiographical novel, Black Boy, was published in March 1945” (Cohen-Solal, p. 242).
And, as philosopher and social justice advocate Cornel West points out in his introduction to the biography, despite any criticisms of the man:
“Sartre will always be remembered as the most visible and influential European intellectual who put a limelight on the struggles against U.S. and French imperialism in Africa and Asia and against white supremacy in the United Sates. This is no small matter and it took great courage to do so. His support of freedom struggles in Morocco, Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa, and the United States—regardless of the outcomes that resulted—was heroic” (West, p. xviii).
The book publishing industry being what it is in 2017, marketplace titles are often the result of sensational headlines or celebrity personalities rather than the value represented by the quality of a manuscript’s substance. As such, in addition to Cohen-Solal and Cornel West, readers of the American trade paperback centennial edition of Sartre: A Life can thank The New Press for its proven dedication to principles and practices that support the publication of books based on their intrinsic merit. Doing so is not about worshipping someone like-Paul Sartre––whose closest contemporary counterpart may be the African-American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison—as a cultural icon. It is about maintaining access to the kind of literature on which humanity depends to help preserve whatever hard-won rights and freedoms still exist.
Among the most beguiling of Sartre’s diagnostic tools of philosophical inquiry was how he chose to employ the biographies of others, such as Jean Genet’s and Gustave Flaubert’s, as mirrors. Rather than emulating their approaches to literary form, metaphysical paradoxes, or political conundrums, he used them to “think against himself,” as if his intellect were a knife, or sword, and theirs whetstones upon which he sharpened concepts and strategies. It is possible Cohen-Solal, though she indicates otherwise, has done the same in regard to Sartre with her masterful examination of one of the 20th century’s most engaged, courageous, and influential creative thinkers.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. His many honors include the Choice Academic Title of the Year Award, the Notable Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Journalist Award, and Poet of the Year Award. He is currently completing final edits on a work of creative nonfiction about the cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.