Sartre and the Collective Neurosis of Our Time

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Author: Douglas Kirsner
Editors: Daniel G. Marowski and Roger Matuz
Date: 1989
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,628 words

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Sartre was always interested in the relation between an individual and his or her time. The early Sartre seemed to focus on the manner in which we deny the freedom which constitutes us, while the later Sartre emphasises the limits to this freedom, which result from our familial and social contexts. In fact, Sartre devoted more pages to understanding the individual in context than to any other matter. How much can we know about a person who is free and yet situated? Sartre's study of Genet [Saint Genet] shows what Genet made of what was made of him. His study of Flaubert [ The Family Idiot] asks both what Flaubert can tell us about his time and what the time can tell us about Flaubert: For a man is never an individual; it would be more fitting to call him a universal singular. Summed up and for this reason universalized by his epoch, he in turn resumes it by reproducing himself in it as a singularity. Universal by the singular universality of human history, singular by the universalizing singularity in his projects, he requires simultaneous examination from both ends.

In this article I want to look at Sartre in the same way in which Sartre treated Genet and Flaubert. Sartre himself wanted to be “as transparent to posterity ... as Flaubert is to [him].” I want to investigate empathically Sartre's “lived experience,” as the way his culture lived him as well as the way he lived his culture, in order to achieve the same end as Sartre achieved with Flaubert. How did Sartre live our contemporary culture? How did he reflect and express central problems of our time as a “universal singular”? Sartre's own view of our age is depicted in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. It is a pessimistic work which focusses on our radical alienation from ourselves and our world. The groups into which we are born terrorize us and dominate the very categories with which we think. Our Western world of late capitalism is ruled by a counterfinality in which loser wins. Advanced technological rationality may be seen to enshrine the final outcome of the fetishism of commodities—human beings are constituted as objects of administration. We blindly produce a world that controls us. Where technology has become the prevailing ideology, human relations often become relations between things. Freedom and choice are fundamentally illusions for there is no ground on which freedom and choice can become realized. In Search for a Method Sartre shows how we can use a method of cross-reference to explain the relation of the individual to society and, in The Family Idiot, Sartre goes further in developing a way of characterizing our time. He understands Flaubert's neurosis as a neurosis required by what I call the objective spirit ... In the first two volumes I seem to be showing Flaubert as inventing the idea of art for art's sake because of his personal conflicts in reality, he invented it because the history of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000753