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The Myth of the Bastille and Sartre’s French Revolution Lawrence D. Kritzman S ARTRE IS AN OLD-FASHIONED PHILOSOPHER whose myth of the French Revolution, had he decided to put it to film, would have been worthy of a production by Cecil B. De Mille. Epic in scope, Sartre’s theory, as it is put forth in the first volume of the Critique de la raison dialectique, privileges the cataclysmic moment of July 14, 1789, as a high point in the process of a dramatic historical develop­ ment. 1Generalizing from the idea that history can be totalized through the workings of human subjectivity, Sartre attempts to demonstrate that man’s social practices enable him to organize events historically and thereby understand himself and political reality. According to the sartrean scheme history is represented as a play of subjectivities in which ideal significations are realized; its origin can only be understood through the comprehension of human being functioning as a conscious structure of desire. If man is defined by his project in history, he is ulti­ mately enmeshed in a temporality in which he is ontologically engaged. Man finds the beginning of things within himself; he becomes the moti­ vating force through which time becomes reality through a praxis that is indeed free and necessary. “ Si ma vie, en s’approfondissant, devient l’Histoire, elle doit se découvrir elle-même au fond de son libre développement comme rigoureuse nécessité du processus historique, pour se retrouver plus profondément encore comme la liberté de cette nécessité et enfin comme nécessité de la liberté” (p. 184). Sartre’s mythology uncovers the mechanisms of causality and adheres to the so-called internal logic of chronology which privileges both the event and the historical moment. He therefore invents a his­ torical model based on the pursuit of origins, a construct that is believed capable of capturing the essence of things. The French Revolution, and the storming of the Bastille in particular, is represented as the result of an irresistible process of necessity through which historical archetypes tri­ umph over atomization or what Sartre terms “ seriality” and create a quasi-romantic narrative in which contradictions are overcome and his­ tory acquires meaning. What distinguishes the Sartrean theoretical project from more tradi­ tional Marxist analyses is its focus on human subjectivity and the inter­ 84 S u m m e r 1989 K r itzm a n relationship between human consciousness and social structures. Sartre’s text stages a phantasmatic representation of the French revolution based on a mechanistic dialectic generated by man’s actions and his free choice. Sartre invents a concept of history based on the founding role of the sub­ ject whereby the theorist becomes a historian of totalities and an apostle of repressed humanism. The motivating force behind this history is an impetus for change motivated by need. In effect desire moves linearly through time and in so doing engenders the space of temporality. Thus at the core of this invented history is the narrative presupposition that need is at the origin of all human activity. “ Tout se découvre dans le besoin: c’est le premier rapport totalisant de cet être matériel, un homme, avec l’ensemble matériel dont il fait partie” (p. 194). To understand how Sartre analyzes the storming of the Bastille as a heuristic device for socio-political transformation, it is essential to understand how he conceives of the notion of the collective. For the desire of the self to be realized it must transcend individual activities and extend itself to those of the group. Collectives are essentially overdeter­ mined groups that owe their existence to some previous activity; they are conditioned dialectically by a past and, as a result, they become part of what Sartre terms the practico-inert, a phenonemon that draws attention to its contingent and passive status. And it is here that Sartre draws upon the symbolism associated with the myth of the Bastille to demonstrate how the group can be petrified in past being and yet eventually recognize a new experience of necessity realized through the dynamics of a coop­ erative praxis. Le groupe se...


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pp. 84-91
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