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Review Essay Those Oldies but Goodies: Les Temps Modernes Revisited1 Lawrence D. Kritzman P ONDERING OVER THE MANY INTERVIEWS that Sartre gave in the last twenty years of his life, I am struck by a sense of nostal­ gia emanating, in part, from the painful consciousness of the pass­ ing of that now prehistoric creature known as the politically committed French intellectual. To want to change one’s social condition and the conception one has of oneself can only be read in the present context of postmodernist thought as an anachronistic form of romantic idealiza­ tion. Writers like Jean-Franfois Lyotard and Richard Rorty have made us aware that epistemic and political legitimation can no longer reside in the Sartrean myth of the concrete universal and man’s ability to “ make history.” In this context, philosophy cannot be appropriated as a viable method for political action and social criticism; and with this dilemma, intellectual choices can no longer constitute the matter of exemplary lives. But the spirit dominating the intellectual climate in postwar France was entirely different. Immediately following the Liberation, Sartre and a group that consisted of Raymond Aron, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Leiris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Ollivier, and Jean Paulhan founded the journal Les Temps Modernes, a forum that would redefine the institution of the intellectual in post-war France through an engage­ ment with the political struggles of the time.2 The new intellectual, as conceptualized by the existentialist avant garde, would be conceived as a crusader, an engagé who militates in favor of freedom through an active commitment to the world. Sartre had indeed sought to transform his earlier notion of individual responsibility and privileged subjectivity from a critical abstraction into concrete socio-political activity. In effect, the problem of the writer’s moral integrity was at stake and this could only be realized if the intellectual would choose to become the conscience of his time—in much the same way that Gide had explored the political implications of colonialism and fascist ideologies—and finds a new way of writing in history. Accordingly, Sartre’s introduction to the inaugural VOL. XXIX, NO. 4 97 L ’E spr it C réa te u r issue of Les Temps Modernes questions the idealistic mystification of the human condition (the myth of total freedom) in order fully to come to terms with man as a being-in-the-world. L’écrivain est en situation dans son époque. Chaque parole a des retentissements. Chaque silence aussi. Je tiens Flaubert et Goncourt pour responsables de la répression qui suivit la Commune,,parce qu’ils n’ont pas écrit une ligne pour l’empêcher. Ce n’était pas leur affaire, dira-t-on. Mais le procès Calas, était-ce l’affaire de Voltaire? La condamnation de Dreyfus, était-ce l’affaire de Zola? L’administration du Congo était-ce l’affaire de Gide?3 In short, as the title was meant to indicate, the commitment of Les Temps Modernes was to the present. Henceforth the writer would be obliged to measure his responsibility in terms of the historical circum­ stances in which he was enmeshed. Basing itself on the wish to transform the social conditions of man and the ontological parameters of the human subject, the review devoted itself to both political and philo­ sophical issues. With the passing of Sartre and Beauvoir in the decade of the 1980s, the time seemed right to examine the terms of their intellectual legacy and the impact of existentialism’s institutionalization centered around Les Temps Modernes. The two books that I will examine briefly here—by Howard Davies and Anna Boschetti—inscribe the political history of the existentialist enterprise in a context derived from recent theoretical debates in anthropology and sociology. Rather than studying Les Temps Modernes in terms of the relation­ ship between comment and event or as the simple vehicle of an ideo­ logical programme, Davies’ methodological perspective centers on Sartre’s “ synthetic anthropology.” He uses this notion to refer to the transdisciplinary qualities of an intellectual enterprise that combines the philosophical rigor of phenomenological ontology with the demands of revolutionary praxis. As he claims, Davies’ venture is...


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