I was struck today by the realization that while academics agonize 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 recognized 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 simply the fact it is Sartre who is giving it.
A. had followed Sartre’s work for over thirty 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’ – that is, their young bodies will outlive his old failing one. As a result A. views the acolytes’ tribute as ‘sombre, like an obituary. In it they anticipate the philosopher’s death. Applause. Bravo, bravo. But now to ourselves the world! A good and great old man. After him greater and better ones are coming and we, the young, will be there with them. The gigantic hall empties.’
I have witnessed this syndrome in people who rush to hear and see a great thinker because they think s/he might be fatally ill. There’s something insulting in such morbid sentiments: ‘Must get to see X because it might be the last chance.’ This is the equivalent of behaving badly at a funeral except the person whose death is anticipated is standing there before the audience at the lectern. I recall a renowned academic writer well into his 70s comment with bewilderment that every time he speaks in public he is filmed or recorded. Curiously he has never received copies of the recordings; they were evidently not intended for him. Rather, they are taken for a future that does not include him, except as a ghostly ornament embalmed with digital fidelity.
In another way, Sartre’s acolytes might think that he belongs exclusively to them. To say you have ‘grown up with a thinker’ is to make a privileged claim to their ideas. There are many people who act like this with regard to great thinkers like Bourdieu or Foucault, but such claims miss another twist. All books are spectral dossiers, time-lapsed thoughts that have been written down. As a consequence, reading is a kind of possession, as the words inhabit us as much as we inhabit them.
Literary work is secure because it outlives not only its authors but also its students. There are no readers beyond the time of a book. Books and the thoughts contained within them are not the exclusive property of any generation. This is perhaps the writer’s ultimate reprisal.