Did You Know That Sartre, in the Name of World Revolution, Would Not Have Prevented the Burning of the Mona Lisa? Neither Did I!

In 1972 Jean Paul Sartre, then age 67, was interviewed by Esquire magazine. The interview appeared in December of that year.  

How do I know this?

Because I had the displeasure of reading the interview today, not from an Internet archive, but from an actual copy of the original magazine.

One of my colleagues retired, and in the clearing of his office he had left, outside his door, for whoever might want them, some old magazines. The Esquire one with the Sartre interview caught my eye, and having long considered myself an existentialist sympathizer, I thought I would like to see what was animating the old intellectual icon way back in 1972. 

Unfortunately, I did not like much of what I read at all. It was a truly dismaying experience, perhaps on a par with Barack Obama’s dismay with his old pastor, the Reverend Wright.

I thought I would share a few of the quotes from the interview.

First, I was shocked at Sartre’s unreconstituted Marxism, and support for communism, both Soviet and Chinese, which, if this interview is any indication, clearly obsessed him above all other concerns. He seems so one dimensional and dated here, that it is simply difficult not to whince. 

Perhaps this should not have surprised me. I knew Sartre was sympathetic to communism, and I’ve always held this against him without abandoning the other aspects of his existentialist philosophy that I regard as valuable, but in this interview his Marxism struck me as unnuanced and even cartoonish, a kind of parody of itself. Here, for example, is his critique of French conservative Jean Francois Revel’s book, Without Marx or Jesus:

I don’t know what he means by revolution. . . . [H]e doesn’t speak of a cessation of the division of labor, of seizing the means of production for the collectivity, or of a withering away of the State. (282)

Well, shame on a conservative for not accepting Marxist premises! Imagine that.

And asked why he is not a Maoist, Sartre said:

Because at the present time to be a Maoist in France you can’t be over thirty. For physical reasons, first of all: if you’re trying to get away from guys who are charging you with clubs, and you’re sixty-seven and have arthritis, you stop at the end of fifty yards! Furthermore, the true Maoist is capable of entering a factory and working on an assembly line. I am no longer able to do that. I am too old. (280)

In short, he would be a Maoist if he was young, didn’t have arthritis, and had the energy for factory work–none of which, conveniently, applies to Sartre. The great exponent, in the 1940s and 50s, of anti-essentialism (the assertion that our nature is not fixed, that we have choices, and that the future is open to us) now appeals to essentialism to explain his not being a Maoist. I’ve got bad knees! I’m over thirty! Factory work is not for an old man!

You might argue that this is Sartre acknowledging honestly his “existential situation,” and making choices from where he is at, but it seems to me that Sartre was then otherwise oblivious to what other people’s limits might be. Sartre wanted to see the whole world set into extremity by Marxist revolution, which would have taxed the limits of many people, young and old, far beyond Sartre’s own protests against his own degree of commitment (age, arthritis, unsuited to factory work).

Sartre thus seems glibly oblivious to his own bourgeois hypocrisy. He is like a contemporary mega-church minister driving a Mercedez-Benz and talking about selling all you have and giving it to the poor.

Still, Sartre’s private excuses for not following through on his highest ideals is somewhat forgivable. We all make excuses, and sometimes even relying on lame ones is good if it stops you from feeling compelled to follow a questionable syllogism to an absurd or self-destructive conclusion (such as becoming a Maoist). Sartre, it appears, still had a healthy instinct for self-preservation and maintaining a bourgeois routine in which he could continue to talk daily, over a pastry, in the sunny Parisian afternoons, with Simone de Beauvoir.

Nevertheless, what is far less understandable is his obnoxious and absurd comments about the Mona Lisa and the jailing of professors in a hypothetical cultural revolution in France. Here’s the interviewer’s question, and Sartre’s full answer:

Interviewer: Imagine a cultural revolution in Paris. Would you try to stop them from burning the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Mona Lisa, etc.?

Sartre: The Mona Lisa, I’d let that burn without giving it a second thought, but I do think I would try to protect some other things. Whether I’d succeed is another question. But I think I would say: let’s put this aside, we’ll discuss it later.

I wouldn’t really see anything wrong with burning professors because some of them are criminals; but actually I would insist that they be left in cellars for a certain time, like paintings and books during the war, and that they be discussed with a clear head once the main action was over.

But when I think of the Mona Lisa! There are some things that really are of no use at all, none at all! For a long time the Mona Lisa’s smile has only served as a cliche for bad writers! That smile used to be something, now it is nothing, it is hollow. The best thing that I’ve seen on the Mona Lisa was a photomonatage: the only original use of the Mona Lisa since I was born! For me, it is absolutely typical of paintings that no longer have anything to say, while other paintings by da Vinci or Tintoretto can still mean something. (284, 286)

In the interview, there is more of Sartre going on in a similar vein. For example, he speaks of literature, after a Marxist revolution, as being thoroughly politicized, and he does so with approval. He thinks, for example, that Madame Bovary might not fare too well in a Marxist future, except as a historical curiousity, and as far as Sartre is concerned, the book could, without regret, be bidden a good riddence.

He also speaks with hope of the day when writing will be a collective product, and not attached to individual authors. In other words, one of the greatest of Western Civilization’s cultural products, the assertion of persona onto the stage of existence, is something Sartre wishes to see an end to. How terribly Orwellian. 

For all Sartre’s greatness as a philosopher, novelist, and playright, as a public intellectual opining on revolution, art, and literature, such statements are simply unforgivable. Sartre fought totalitarianism in World War II, but in his maturity and old age he seems to have morphed into the crassest of totalitarians himself.

How very, very tragic.

Thankfully, existentialism has a life beyond Sartre, and needn’t be chained by his political and aesthetic stupidities. I like reading, for example, the old 1950s books on existentialism by Hazel Barnes, a female academic who was the first translator of Sartre into English, but who, in her own writings, gave existentialism a decidedly American strain, free of anti-capitalist bromides.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Did You Know That Sartre, in the Name of World Revolution, Would Not Have Prevented the Burning of the Mona Lisa? Neither Did I!

  1. Adddf says:

    Do you know about Albert Camus? He was another French Existentialist philosopher who, unlike Sartre, denounced the atrocities of communist regimes. I admire him far more than Sartre the stalinist.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Yes, I agree Camus is more level-headed. : )

    • Anonymous says:

      Sartre wasn’t a stalinist.
      Go and do your homework.

      • Anonymous says:

        Agreed. He supported Stalin in the name of a better tomorrow where the working class wasn’t bound by the disadvantages of capitalism, but it certainly wasn’t because he liked Stalin or Stalinism. He was a radical revolutionary who thought with change more change would come and we could keep advancing towards a better version of this life for all. The author of this post might say his support of communism made them wince, but what made Sartre wince was the idea of the poor being forced to die in wars being waged by the rich, the effects of overwork on the human experience each of us only get one of, and much more.
        What a half-assed analysis of a brilliant guy.
        Also, Sartre was right about the Mona Lisa. The view he took by the end of his life of the ends being worth the means with situations like that is clear. Regular, working people were, and continue to be, oppressed and harmed living in a constant struggle to survive. The Mona Lisa is just a painting. If it was gone my life wouldn’t be worse. I’m sure most would agree, although seeing it before I die, I guess, could be cool.
        However, If burning it could incite even a slight change that could better the lives of ten, or save even one person, I’d say light it up too.

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