Saturday, April 22, 2006

Americans and Their Myths

I exist because I think

Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905 – April 15, 1980) has been one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. He was an existentialist. Philiosopher. Dramatist. Novelist par excellence. Critic. Professor. A Frenchman. A Cosmopolitan.

He is one of those geniuses for whom a determined philosophical position is the centre of their artistic being. Although drawn from many sources, for example, Husserl's idea of a free, fully intentional consciousness and Heidegger's existentialism, the existentialism Sartre formulated and popularized is profoundly original. Its popularity and that of its author reached a climax in the forties, and Sartre's theoretical writings as well as his novels and plays constitute one of the main inspirational sources of modern literature.

Sartre refused the 1964 Nobel prize in literature -- the only person to do so in the history of the highly coverted awards -- because he thought it will make him an institution.

Here is what Sartre said about America in 1947:

Excerpts: Americans and their myths
JOHN-PAUL SARTRE [October 18, 1947]

EVERYTHING has been said about the United States. But a person who has once crossed the Atlantic can no longer be satisfied with even the most penetrating books; not that he does not believe what they say, but that his agreement remains abstract.

The system is a great external apparatus, an implacable machine which one might call the objective spirit of the United States and which over there they call Americanism-a huge complex of myths, values, recipes, slogans, figures, and rites.

There are the great myths, the myths of happiness, of progress, of liberty, of triumphant maternity; there is realism and optimism--and then there are the Americans, who, nothing at first, grow up among these colossal statues and find their way as best they can among them. There is this myth of happiness: slogans warn you to be happy at once; films that "end well" show a life of rosy ease to the exhausted crowds; the language is charged with optimistic and unrestrained expressions-"have a good time," "life is fun," and the like. But there are also these people, who, though conventionally happy, suffer from an obscure malaise to which no name can be given, who are tragic through fear of being so, through that total absence of the tragic in them and around them.

There is this collectivity which prides itself on being the least "historical" in the world, on never complicating its problems with inherited customs and acquired rights, on facing as a virgin a virgin future in which every thing is possible-and there are these blind gropings of bewildered people who seek to lean on a tradition, on a folklore. I shall never be able to paint as long as I stay in the United States; and there is the obscure, slow effort of an entire nation to seize universal history and assimilate it as its patrimony. There is respect for science and industry, positivism, an insane love of gadgets.

There are the thousand taboos which proscribe love outside of marriage--and there is the litter of used contraceptives in the back yards of coeducational colleges; there are all those men and women who drink before making love in order to transgress in drunkenness and not remember. There are the neat, coquettish houses, the pure-white apartments with radio, armchair, pipe, and stand--little paradises; and there are the tenants of those apartments who, after dinner, leave their chairs, radios, wives, pipes, and children, and go to the bar across the street to get drunk alone.

While Sartre made this intellectual arguement against the US in 47', it has been more than 58 years and US made tremendous leaps in most spheres, Sartre mentions here. However, the intensity with which the philosopher articulated American ways still resonate.


Ken Snelson said...

I have read Sartre and it makes sense that what he said about the US way of life 60 yrs back, still hold good.

joyita said...


That is what I don;t understand. But u do.

Thank u

Laurent, Talahasee, US said...

Sartre is the god of existential philospohy. I quote : Emotions, he says, are not outside the control of our wills, if one is sad it is because one chooses to be sad; we are responsible for our emotions; we are, ultimately, responsible for our own behaviour.

He sums up US behaviour like no one else.


anjali said...

Better I make a quick skip/
I hate brainy guys arguing on brainy things.

Next time post some thing real rocking.


Prof A L Weed, South Carolina said...

Sam, Although Sartre is universally acknowledged as a great philosopher some of this criticism was misdirected while other portions exhibit a genuine philosophical "choice" about goals and methods.

I know -- all are trying to do here -- is presenting a acknowledged genuis to your readers but he was harsh in this particular write-up.

Philip, Hamburg said...

His indefatigable pursuit of philosophical reflection, literary creativity and, in the second half of his life, active political commitment gained him worldwide renown. I think it is within the norms of an intellectual debate to learn Sartre's views on US.

Patrick, Minnesota said...

Two points I want to make -- With his emphasis on consciousness, subjectivity, freedom, responsibility and the self, his commitment to dialectical thinking, especially in the second part of his career, and his quasi Enlightenment humanism, Sartre seemed to personify everything that structuralists and poststructuralists like Foucault opposed.

I am glad that there are 20-something kids -- like u -- who read Sartre and can initiate a good debate on his ideas.



hana, Iraq said...

thanks for introducing me to Sartre'. I've read a couple of pieces by him after reading your blog.



Tanzila said...

Sartre said this 60 yrs ago? it holds! i feel that the developed countries are some how struck by the malaise of boredom. Their prosperity has made them lax in morals and their attitude towards life. i spent my early years in the middle east and i saw a deadness of soul in these rich arabs.

Tanzila said...

It is somethign where they have left the americans way behind.