Jean Paul Sartre embodies the quintessential twentieth century intellectual. He is practically synonymous with Existentialism, which advocates that ‘since the individual is entirely free to choose what he becomes, he is also entirely responsible for himself.’ (Robinson: 1980). However, what is less commonly known is how Sartre himself came to define the intellectual. This 1974 video interview provides a fascinating insight into Sartre’s radical evolution in this regard. It illustrates how the events of May 1968 urged Sartre to espouse a new revolutionary intellectual, rejecting the classic intellectual he had always candidly defended. What is so remarkable is that the interview reveals Sartre ‘challenging the very notion of the intellectual that he personified’ (Drake: 2003) and in doing so fundamentally denouncing the profession to which he belonged. Effectively, Sartre dismantles his own livelihood. Crucially, the visual media conveying this evolution reinforces the core message by presenting Sartre in a humble and enlightened manner.
The interview is taken from ‘Sartre By Himself’ (Sartre par lui‐meme), a 3 hour documentary released in 1974 and filled with archive footage interviews covering various aspects of Sartre’s extraordinary life. Meanwhile, May 1968 saw a series of anti-imperialist student occupation protests take place in Paris. Sartre swiftly announced his endorsement of the movement, affirming that violence was the final option for the students who wanted radical change.
Sartre begins by defining the classic intellectual as a ‘technician of practical knowledge’, someone who applies universal practices to particular situations. For example, the scientist working on an atomic bomb harnesses scientific knowledge – universal and undebatable – on specific parts and therefore under particular conditions. Sartre’s choice of vocabulary is interesting to explore as it impacts the image of the intellectual he portrays. Through words such as ‘recruited’ and ‘schooled’, Sartre places a strong emphasis on the classic intellectual’s high level of education, while implying that his professional path should be long and arduous. Furthermore, Sartre uses phrases like ‘in the beginning’ and ‘the one we’ve all known’, which depict the classic intellectual as a familiar and almost timeless figure in society.
Conflictingly, Sartre goes on to say, the application of the intellectual’s universal knowledge is never universal but particular, inevitably benefiting a particular cause and group (i.e. the bourgeoisie): ‘The totality of the knowledge is never used by all men; it is used in the capitalist countries, above all by a certain category of persons belonging to the ruling classes and their allies.’ (Sartre: 1974) To reference the aforementioned example, the scientists’ universal knowledge benefits American imperialism in Vietnam. What truly brands the intellectual is the awareness of this perpetual contradiction, or unhappy conscience, within himself. In sum, the intellectual constitutes, and is constituted by, an unresolvable contradiction.
Having established the essence of the classic intellectual, Sartre infers that his mission is to educate by bearing universal truth and values. Unhappy consciousness enables him to show solidarity with the underprivileged (proletariat) class; to advise them, to seek out truths on their behalf, to sign petitions to advance their cause and so on. Sartre believes that as the proletariat are unable to speak for themselves, they ‘require intellectuals to speak for them, and to give expression to their cause by revealing the true nature of their situation.’ (Hall: 1996) Sartre’s own life exemplifies this description, in the role of a politically committed intellectual. For example, ‘he was a signatory to countless manifestos, regularly made public speeches, and wrote a number of prefaces to books with political themes.’ (Bates: 2006)
1968: the birth of the revolutionary intellectual
As the interview’s conclusion demonstrates, the events of May 1968 profoundly impacted Sartre’s concept of intellectualism. Central to his reflection was the fact the protests were the ‘result of students who had an understanding of the situation and were adamant that they did not want to be like the classic intellectuals.’ (Bates: 2006) For Sartre, their resounding success signalled a rejection of the classic intellectual’s essence. Firstly, they lacked the formal education previously deemed vital to effect meaningful change. Secondly, they required no intermediary for their voice to be heard. Thirdly, given that students had taken jobs in factories in order to become close to the proletariat, the pursuit of universal knowledge was discarded in favour of the practicalities of real life. All of a sudden, expressing solidarity with an unhappy conscience was seemingly redundant. As Michel Foucault (1977) succinctly remarked,’the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer needed him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves.’
Certainly, Sartre’s subsequent actions bear witness to his change of heart. ‘Within three years Sartre had become editor-in-chief of three of the Maoist groups’ newspapers, La Cause du Peuple, Tout, and Liberation.’ (O Brien: 2018) What’s more, Sartre (1974) later wrote that the intellectual must surpass solidarity to ‘forge a direct link relationship with those who demand a universal society with the masses.’ It should be noted that the combination of the noticeably short video air time and the phrase ‘peculiar thing’ adds a thick layer of incomprehension and suddenness to the revolutionary intellectual’s character: a marked contrast to the enduring nature of the classic intellectual denoted earlier, and a signal of the abrupt disruption of Sartre’s profession.
Impact of Visual Media
The visual aspect of this interview greatly enhances the humility and wisdom with which Sartre reconstructs his profession. Manifestly, that he is visible and alongside an interviewer makes him more accessible and informal. The camera movement, gradually drawing the focus on to Sartre’s face, reveals his acute human fragility. It actively allows the audience in as Sartre accepts his change in direction and laments his now obsolete profession. This is beautifully balanced by the sense of incredible knowledge and experience which underpins the entirety of the clip; Sartre’s speaking style is slow and calm; the apartment setting is overflowing with books and papers and contains little else; the clip itself appears in a 3 hour feature film continuously exhibiting Sartre’s critical thinking; halfway through the camera pans to the interviewer who looks simultaneously gripped and bemused as he tries to comprehend Sartre’s stream of consciousness.
The interviewer focuses as he engages with Sartre’s ideas
Link to video
Bates, D. (2006). Marxism, Intellectuals and Politics, London: Macmillan.
Drake, D. (2003). Sartre: Intellectual of the Twentieth Century, Sartre Studies
International, Volume 9, Issue 2.
Foucault, M. (1977). ‘Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation Between Michael
Foucault and Gilles Deleuze’, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays
and Interviews by Michael Foucault, trans. D.F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Hall, G. (1996). ‘Answering the Question: What is an Intellectual’, Surfaces, University of
Teesside School of Law, Humanities & International Studies, Volume 6, Issue 212.
O Brien, R. (2018). ‘Jean-Paul Sartre: the supernova of the far Left’, Standpoint, May.
Robinson, C. (1980). French Literature in the Twentieth Century, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble.
Sartre, J.P. (1974). ‘A Plea for Intellectuals’, Between Existentialism and Marxism, trans. J Matthews, London: New Left Books.