"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The final item in this sprawling yet comprehensive anthology of Jean-Paul Sartre’s essays is an interview with the philosopher titled “Self-Portrait at Seventy.” The interview ends with this exchange, in which the interviewer attempts to get Sartre to take a view of his life as a whole.
In short, so far life has been good to you?
On the whole, yes. I don’t see what I could reproach it with. It has given me
what I wanted and at the same time it has shown that this wasn’t much. But
what can you do? [The interview ends in wild laughter brought on by the last
statement.] The laughter must be kept. You should put: “Accompanied by
This wasn’t much. It is a jarring way to end a book which showcases the fruits of Sartre’s long life of study, writing, and politics. It’s a punch line, and the setup was his life.
In that life, Sartre published ten essay collections, a series always bearing the title Situations. That word was philosophically significant for Sartre. Sartre used it to refer to the fact that human beings are always in a position of dealing with certain material givens (one’s language, physical state, environment, political regime, etc.) while also bearing a radical freedom and responsibility to act. One can always reach beyond the situation through action: one can’t always change what is already given, but one can always act. Edited by scholars Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven, We Have Only this Life to Live culls from all ten volumes of Situations, and doing so it gives one a sense of just how many different types of, well, situations Sartre got himself into. Included are essays about fiction, poetry, the plastic arts, as well as philosophy and politics.
We consider it a mark of versatility to be able to publish in more than one genre (say, verse and fiction), and the fact that, for example, David Foster Wallace was able to write philosophy along with his fiction is seen as a mark of genius. Sartre was working at a whole other level. He published plays (No Exit), novels (Nausea), philosophy (Being and Nothingness), reportage, memoir (The Words), and literary biography (Saint Genet). Sartre’s essays were occasions in which he practiced a more relaxed, polemical, or immediate take on a matter in all of these fields. Thus the essays in this collection give us a sense of Sartre in full: the man of letters, the philosopher, the Marxist ideologue, and even the friend.
But to remain merely contemplating Sartre’s intelligence and versatility is to miss the most striking dimension of the man, and this anthology doesn’t let you do that. Although Sartre was a man with a deep sense for the significance that ideas and art had for political life, his best essays on cultural topics come from the time when his worldview was still dominated by existentialism and phenomenology. After his post-war rise to prominence, Sartre was defined by his service to a totalitarian ideal, that is, to a view of humanity that owed more to Marxism than to the existentialism which had made him famous. Aronson’s introduction adequately notes the ways in which Sartre aided and abetted Stalin and totalitarianism and violence; the essays themselves reveal how these political alliances were connected to Sartre’s ideas. Only those essays in which Sartre rises above his totalitarian ideas are valuable to the contemporary reader.
One essential statement describing those ideas is the piece, “Introducing Les temps modernes,” the editorial statement from the first issue of the journal that Sartre founded with a group of fellow intellectuals in post-war France. The statement explains the philosophical ideals of the journal, which, Sartre says, are rooted in a particular conception of human nature. “Yet, some will ask, what is that conception of man that you pretend to reveal to us? We respond that it can be found on every street corner…I shall call this conception, ‘totalitarian.’”
The bourgeois ideal, Sartre writes, was marked by analysis. In the bourgeois era, every aspect of society has been divided into individual component parts. This has been a boon for the sciences, but not for the masses. Humanity has become atomized, and the fraternité promised by the French Revolution was actually a bogus “passive bond among distinct molecules, which takes the place of an active or class-bound solidarity that the analytic cast of mind cannot even imagine.” The revolutionary socialist idea, instead, sees man as part of a collective: the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, etc.
It was Sartre’s stated aim to create a synthesis of both views, a way of appreciating individual freedom with Marxist collectivism, a view of man as part of a totality, as being in a situation (hence, “totalitarian”). In practice, for Sartre this meant supporting the French Communist Party and often justifying violence committed in its name. Without a robust, “analytic” concept of human dignity, it became easy enough to justify the use of force by one collective against its repressive rival. As Aronson writes, “[Sartre] too easily justified violence and ignored the perilous structures, relationships, and attitudes that violence can generate.” An example of this is Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, included in this anthology, in which Sartre famously jests that “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, doing away with oppressor and oppressed at the same time…”
It was the issue of political violence which sparked the famous feud between Sartre and Albert Camus, and this collection includes Sartre’s rejoinder, “Reply to Albert Camus.” It is strange to see here only the wrong side of this famous debate, though of course this is an anthology of Sartre’s writings. Perhaps it would have been better to also include Sartre’s obituary for Camus, a warm and perhaps slightly regretful portrayal of the man, which happens to be among Sartre’s most moving works. Comparing the “Reply” with the obituary, we get a sense for the difference between Sartre the ideologue and Sartre the human being. The former becomes the latter when he forgets his totalitarian ideas and writes about what he loves.
This may sound like a wildly sentimental thing to say about such a notorious figure. But there are essays in this collection which give evidence of love—the literary essays, most clearly. In “On John Dos Passos and 1919,” Sartre argues that American novelist is “the greatest author of our time” because of his style: it is a dispassionate, journalistic style which forces one to participate in collective consciousness while at the same time inspiring rebellion against it. “That [collective] consciousness exists only through me; without me there would merely be black flecks on white sheets of paper. But at the very moment when I am this collective consciousness, I also want to wrench myself away from it…” because we cannot bear to see our own lives related in the banal language of newspapers, because “you can’t speak of yourself in this tone.” This was written in 1938, by an earlier, anti-collectivist Sartre. He would become a Communist after the war—and Dos Passos, a libertarian.
One can tell, reading these early literary essays, just how important literature seemed to be to the young Sartre. Using phenomenology as an interpretive tool, Sartre was able to describe the ways in which the techniques of fiction could illuminate the contours of human existence. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy which aims to describe the essential components of all forms of human experience: experience of space, time, self, beauty, morality, etc. This collection opens with an essay about phenomenology titled, “A Fundamental Idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology: Intentionality.” It is a good essay but perhaps does not give enough preparation to the general reader for the bits of phenomenological jargon that is to come. Regardless, though, Sartre’s lucid prose in these early essays usually sheds light on the complex ideas he was using.
Those ideas are used to analyze style, and the analysis reveals a new way of looking at the different aspects of everyday existence: with Dos Passos, we rediscover the self, with Faulkner, time, with Camus, morality. One marvels at just how much spiritual power Sartre found in imaginative prose.
The human Sartre also makes an appearance late in life, in two memoirs about dead friends: the novelist Paul Nizan and the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Unless one is acquainted with the intimate details of Sartre’s life, it is hard to tell what in these pieces is genuine feeling, what is score settling, and what is simply wrong. But from the literary point of view, these are some of Sartre’s best writings. The memoriam of about Nizan, in particular, verges on the tragic.
Nizan had been Sartre’s university classmate, and they had been close since youth. Nizan’s literary career blossomed earlier than Sartre’s: he published his first novel at age twenty-six, while Sartre did not publish his first book before his thirtieth birthday. Nizan was dead before his thirty-sixth birthday, a casualty of World War II. He had joined the Communist Party and served it ardently as a writer. But he left it in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He joined the French forces and died a year later. After his death, the French Communists attempted to suppress his work.
The Sartre writing about Nizan is a passionate humanist. He speaks about his friend’s “deep, sincere desire to knit together the scattered strands in each of us, to contain our disorders in the synthetic unity of form.” Nizan had been from an early age haunted by his suffering father, a locomotive engineer who was able to leave the working class and become a manager. This transition, however materially beneficial, left his father a lonely, brooding, often suicidal man, forever riddled by guilt of leaving friends behind. Nizan himself was able to receive the best education that France had to offer; he too was riddled with guilt, but also by the desire to live his life for justice, to not “waste” it. He considered the priesthood, but chose the Communist Party – until the Party, in making the dreaded Pact, let him down.
Thus Nizan lost the meaning of his life. Sartre crafts his story (perhaps intentionally) in such a way that it meets two key Aristotelian requirements for tragedy. There’s a reversal (the Pact) and a moment of recognition (the Party is not what Nizan was looking for, and ironically it has left him as alienated as his bourgeois father):
Now [Nizan] learned that he was being used as a tool, with the real objectives
hidden from him; he learned that lies had been put into his mouth and he had
repeated them in good faith: from him too, unseen, remote individuals had stol-
en his strength, his life. He had put all his obstinacy into rejecting the gentle,
corrosive words of the bourgeoisie and, all of a sudden, in the party of the revo-
lution, he was back with what he feared most: alienation from language… At
present, his actions as a militant came back to him and they were virtually iden-
tical to those of the bourgeois engineer: “nothing enduring”…
This essay is worth the price of the book, but: What endures of Sartre? Nizan’s story is a useful test case for Sartre’s thought. Sartre was able to gauge the depths of Nizan’s desire, and the pathos of his fall. But the very faith that failed Nizan—Communism—was the faith that Sartre never let go of, even during times when that faith asked him to justify its crimes. “I doubt if Nizan drew the slightest consolation from this philosophical view,” he said of Nizan’s Communism. But it is doubtful that Nizan would have gained much consolation from Sartre’s own views, either. For one, Sartre dismissed Nizan’s questioning of death: “Nizan’s horror of death was like his retrospective jealousy—eccentricities that a healthy morale should combat.” This was a key issue in Nizan’s life; the displacement of personal salvation and fulfillment for the triumph of the revolution was never the consolation Nizan was looking for. Nizan would not be content with, “this wasn’t much.”
Given that there are other anthologies of Sartre’s essays in print, one might ask why we need a new one. This collection does feature some essays not easily found elsewhere in English (“On the American Working Class,” “Kierkegaard: The Singular Universal,” “Russell Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal Inaugural Statement”). But these pieces are not essential; they may be important to scholars, but not to the general audience that this book is for. Rather than asking why we need a new collection of Sartre’s essays, perhaps we should ask, why should a general audience—especially younger American readers and writers, encountering Sartre for the first time—care to read him at all?
The question only becomes more pressing as we realize how different Sartre’s world was from our own. In “On the American Working Class,” Sartre wonders why an American worker does not see himself as belonging to a “working class.” When Sartre was writing, the AFL and the CIO were not yet the AFL-CIO, the Second World War was only just winding down, and jobs were not yet being outsourced. Written during the same trip to the US, “New York, Colonial City” contains many interesting observations, but statements like, “Amid the numerical anonymity of streets and avenues, I am simply anyone, anywhere,” not only approach existentialist self-parody, but also make one wonder how many times Sartre made it to Harlem, Chinatown, or any borough beyond Manhattan. Sartre admires the skyscrapers, but he says that their heyday is through, because “to build them took a faith we no longer possess.” We are still building skyscrapers today. He goes to “Nick’s Bar, New York City,” to listen to some jazz and proclaims: “Everybody listens. No one dreams.” How does he know that? Anyway, jazz “is more a music of the past than of the future”—he says in 1946, when elsewhere in New York a young Miles Davis was learning his craft playing for Charlie Parker’s quintet.
So why read Sartre today? Not for insights into our own time, which are wanting, nor for his politics—they are totalitarian and violent. In short, not to encounter the ideologue. But we should read Sartre to seek out the writer and the critic overshadowed by the ideologue, especially in those essays which give evidence of love and not hate. Sartre’s literary and critical essays have value for American critics and novelists today, who live in a time when fiction risks becoming yet another specialized subfield in the cultural landscape, disconnected from philosophy, religion, and politics. These essays are a model of synthesis and of sheer reverence for literature. And Sartre’s memoirs, full of gravity and pathos, are perhaps his most underrated pieces among his collected works. Ideology and love were at odds in Sartre the man, but now among his works we can pick out the nobler elements of his output and learn from them.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)