18th January


I was struck today by the realisation that while academics agonise about their status and standing, intellectual recognition is very fleeting. Visiting a University of London college I overheard one of the faculty say, "My work isn't really recognised enough." This common academic complaint belies the fact that even the greatest thinkers are humbled by time. At the beginning of Pierre Bourdieu's Sketch for a Self-Analysis there is a portrait of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Seen through the eyes of the young École Normale Supérieure student, Sartre personifies the "total intellectual". Master of philosophy, literature, history and politics, Sartre is surrounded by a legion of young radical acolytes. To his adoring young followers the existentialist author had written the last word on the human condition in books like Nausea and Being and Nothingness. Reflecting on this, Bourdieu - never one to follow intellectual fashion - is disparaging of "Sartre worship", and an intellectual style that "encourages a self-confidence often verging on the unself-consciousness of triumphant ignorance".

A very different portrayal of Sartre is found in Jean Améry's book On Aging. Through his protagonist - referred to as A. - we meet Sartre speaking to another packed room of students, but this time towards the end of his life. For many years A. held Sartre in great esteem. It is not the topic of the lecture that draws A. but the simply fact it is Sartre who is giving it.


A. had followed Sartre's work for over 30 years as a dedicated reader and pupil. In fact A. had heard Sartre before in the springtime of 1946 when his intellectual hero had "exuded a strong physical force of attraction, something virile and powerful". In the great hall of a large western university, Sartre has been transformed by the passage of time. A. is shocked by the physical decline: "My god, now he has become frail, tired gentleman, a senile man with a flaccid, pale grey face, an emaciated body, and an exhausted, rattling voice, he has become old with time weighing inside him." The transitory nature of academic power or intellectual authority is one of the implications of Améry's parable. Perhaps, if academics kept this in mind we might be less prone to episodes of intellectual arrogance, snobbery and self-aggrandisement. Améry points out here that time will humiliate even the greatest mind.

However, for A. it is not just Sartre's physical demise that is troubling. For the aged Sartre offers a stunning performance on the night in question, outlining a sharp justification of the Russell Tribunal's case against the Vietnam war. "They cannot know that the esteem they display for the aged man who snatches up his papers and makes for the exit on his tiny feet is 'dis-esteem' and a malicious condemnation," reflects A. This is because the young admirers carry within them the living embodiment of the "anti-Sartre" - ie, their young bodies will outlive his old failing one. As a result A. views the acolytes' tribute as "sombre, like an obituary."


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