‘The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History’ reviewed by A F Pomeroy

The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012. 380pp., $28.95 / £25 pb
ISBN 9781583672921

Reviewed by A F Pomeroy

About the reviewer

Anne F. Pomeroy is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Richard Stockton College, Galloway, NJ. She …


The 2012 release, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History, delivers the long-awaited final section of Mészáros’ 1979 study on Sartre’s work. Originally intended to constitute a second volume, the analysis of Sartre’s conception of history now serves to expand and complete the original text.

The stated purpose of this new edition is to fill a political lacuna inadequately addressed by postmodernism and post-structuralism, to resurrect from its bourgeois determinations the dignity of the notion of individual responsibility championed by Sartre, to pay the debt owed to Sartre by Marxists. In a time when “the future seems to be fatefully barred by capitalism’s deepening crisis”, a retrieval of the power of radical negation seems necessary so that we can admit with Sartre that “a barred future is still a future” (11).

It speaks to the strength of Mészáros’ analysis of Sartre that the first two parts, originally published as The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom, have withstood the test of time so well. They merit review, even by those who have previously read the text, as they provide needed context for the newly added third part. However, it should be noted that Part Three reproduces material already published in Section 6 of Mészáros’ The Dialectic of Structure and History (volume 2 of Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness).

Part One: The examination of the unity of Sartre’s life and work is focused through the lens of the problematic of the writer’s project. The question of how the contingencies of the lived social framework can be transformed into the necessity embodied in the work frames both Sartre’s social-political work of engagement, and his philosophical-literary production. What is the subject such that objectivity becomes lived? How is it that there is a “singularization of the work by the man and the universalization of the man by the work?” (44, as quoted from Sartre).

According to Mészáros, the strictly discursive form of most philosophical presentation is inadequate for Sartre to fully explore the dynamic relations of the human project and original choice as they play out in situation and through conflicts (49). Therefore Sartre supplements philosophical writing with plays that allow representation of these mediations in the mythical form, and with novels that allow historical presentation of the singular universal. Most often however, Sartre opts for a fusion of discursive and representational forms: the philosophical themes appear in the plays and novels; the philosophical analyses are expressed by way of metaphorical imagery, dramatic exemplifications, and references to lived experience (52). Much to his credit, Mészáros does not limit his study to the strictly philosophical works, but integrates both the fictional and biographical novels (Flaubert and Genet) and the plays in his analyses.

The final section of Part One introduces a rough timeline outlining six periods of Sartre’s literary-philosophical development (78-80). We are warned, however, against the belief that there are definitive breaks between these stages. In fact, Mészáros maintains, the development is driven by the nature of Sartre’s initial project. Sartre’s ontological vision remains consistent throughout, and this consistency constitutes both his greatest contribution, and his greatest stumbling block (85-6).

In Part Two, Mészáros examines the early works. Despite Sartre’s own claims to have confused the individual and totality in his early writings, Mészáros holds that lines between the two are, in fact, too sharply drawn (96). A dualism between the world and consciousness is transformed into ontological law, and thus the world is totalized only through its negation, resulting in a “radically fractured totality from which mediation is exiled” (105). On account of this dualism, in the passional attempt to found itself consciousness discovers both its being as freedom, and the impossibility of its desire. The Outline of the Theory of Emotions allows that the world may be present to us as a conglomeration of particular utilizable objects, or as modified en masse by the emotions. Furthermore, in producing the world and the ego, consciousness constructs the means by which it is able to avoid facing freedom, and yet the negation of this attitude that might allow authentic appropriation cannot be induced. Thus the human being discovers her powerlessness without either the capacity to escape it, or the luxury of becoming resigned to it.

The repeated problem is one of mediation. The individual subject, upon whom social engagement depends, is not meaningfully situated. There is neither a mediatative relationship within socio-historical reality, nor with the Other with whom s/he is in ontological conflict. How is one to comprehend and construct a project within the objective situation, and how are there to be relationships of solidarity that will allow concerted social-transformative action? Mészáros concludes that it is impossible both to hold this ontological vision, and to construct a viable human project of social revolution (132-4). In the attempt to escape a deterministic materialism (Sartre’s unfortunate take on Marxism), and to hold fast to the moral commitment that assigns absolute responsibility to the individual, Sartre presents an ontology that is fundamentally incompatible with the Marxian liberatory project, and creates a “lifework which is manifestly representative of our time” (141).

In lieu of beginning with structures of mediation, Sartre expresses the unity of antinomous moments through his literary constructions. One of the most original and sensitive analyses in this work is to be found in Mészáros’ discussion of Sartre’s use of metaphor in Being and Nothingness. The existential philosophy can adequately express the lived experience of causality, time and motion only through articulations capable of holding together seemingly antithetical factors: the inside/outside of the subject, the interpenetration of freedom/contingency and facticity/transcendence, the individual capacity for both the authenticity of lived freedom and the bad faith insistence on inevitable determinism, the existential presence of past and future, etc. Sartre maintains the necessary ambiguities through his use of metaphors. As metaphors hold together heterogeneous moments, so individual moments achieve expressive extension through a kaleidoscopic unfolding of exemplifications – each turn producing a new arrangement of the same pieces.

And yet, Mészáros maintains that such efforts at expression are inadequate to overcome the inherent dualism of the original ontological constructions, and Sartre’s expressed desire to move from ontology to morality is frustrated by them. The absolute ontological otherness of the world stymies a morality of doing in favor of one of being, of authentic transformation (189). Yet, if the individual is not the foundation of her own being, can she really assume such responsibility and, furthermore, how could such freedom at an instant produce meaningful social change? The isolation of the self from the Other and the inherent conflict in this relationship prevent the possibility of concerted social activism. The social structure of domination is ontologized by Sartre. There can be no humanistic “us”. Despite the correctives that the Sartrean ontology presents to vulgar Marxism, his ontology ultimately generates an “anarchistic individualism” (194), ontological solitude, and interminable particularization (207).

In Part Three, Mészáros presents the challenge of history both through Sartre’s personal political activism, and his attempt (primarily in Critique of Dialectical Reason [CRD]) to construct its adequate foundation. Sartre’s political activism begins in earnest after World War II. His public social and political positions incurred the disfavor of conservatives and leftists alike. He founded and then left the RDR, allied with and roundly criticized the French Communist Party, stood against US hegemony and the war in Vietnam, Soviet military repression in Hungary, global nuclear buildup. Mészáros praises Sartre’s “tireless advocacy of the fundamental progressive social and political causes” (234), yet cannot do the same for the CRD, because the historical structures outlined in Volume One fail historical instantiation in the planned second volume. Sartre is forced to discard 500 pages, and ultimately abandons the work. The primary difficulty, according to Mészáros, is that the structures outlined in Volume One are applicable solely to the bourgeois order. Again, Sartre’s analysis reproduces the existing order. Lurking behind the failure is Sartre’s retention of the original dualistic and individualistic ontological framework. The serialization of individuals cannot produce class consciousness and cooperative social-political action. The antagonistic relationship with the Other is magnified by the insertion of the trans-historical category of scarcity. Therefore, when Sartre writes “Elections a Trap for Fools”, he merely calls for individuals to claim sovereignty without being able to found their mutual relational formation as a group. He fails to see that a radically different order would be required for such action even to become possible.

Mészáros makes it increasingly evident that Sartre has never really come to understand the Marxian critique of capitalism. He grants too much to the material reproductive order and to its integrated social subject (258). The existential examination of lived experience reproduces those structures and Sartre’s own “belligerent subjectivity”, producing an ontology that reflects the same, also prevents him from the kind of honest examination and revision that would allow it to support the radical anti-capitalist project to which he is devoted. Here the story is told by the unfinished works: the anthropology, the ethics, the second volume of the CRD. They become impossible on the basis of Sartre’s refusal to give up the primacy of subjective responsibility that requires absolute freedom as absolute negation and produces ontological fracture. Finally, mediation is the issue, for the overcoming of the capitalist form of relations and the radical social transformation of interpersonal, inter-species, and human-world productive relations can indeed never be accomplished by isolated individuals. One must start from a place of dialectical mediation or fall, as does Sartre, into despair.

There are certainly some difficulties with Mészáros’ text. Elimination of redundancies could have tightened up the main arguments, and an extended critique of Levi-Strauss in Part Three could certainly have been eliminated. It serves more to distract from the primary line of argument than to advance it. Also, Mészáros may not have given enough credit to Sartre’s work in the Family Idiot for accomplishing, to some extent, what he does not in the second volume of the CRD. Yet for all this, the work is of remarkable value. Mészáros’ evaluation is clearly based upon his own deeply committed Marxism, yet he never falls prey to the simplistic critique of Sartre that merely declares him to be inadequately sensitive to material conditions. He has indeed produced a broad-ranging, nuanced and deeply sympathetic reading of the Sartrean corpus that, with complete accuracy, locates its fundamental incompatibilities with the project of overcoming the social relations of capitalism, and that finally renders Sartre’s passion-driven project as useless as that of his ontological subject.

Interestingly, Mészáros’ work does not deliver on its originally stated purpose of resurrecting from its bourgeois determinations the dignity of the notion of individual responsibility championed by Sartre. If anything, we see more clearly than ever that responsibility is in fact never merely individual.

1 December 2013

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