In the summer of 1974, in a hotel room in Rome, Simone de Beauvoir tape-recorded a series of conversations with her lifelong companion, Jean-Paul Sartre. He was already almost blind and beginning to suffer the illnesses that would take his life six years later. De Beauvoir asked Sartre what works of his he thought had the greatest chance of surviving. Sartre replied, “I think it’s Situations, articles related to my philosophy but written in a very simple style and speaking of things that everybody knows.”
Of the fifty or so volumes of Sartre’s work that have appeared in English so far, there is no complete translation of the ten volumes of Situations despite Sartre’s high regard for them. The Aftermath of War translates Situations III in its entirety and is therefore to be welcomed if only as a further addition to the English-language body of this most significant series of works.
In this collection of a dozen essays originally published in 1949, we encounter Sartre masterfully applying the philosophy of existentialism he had recently established in Being and Nothingness. Central to the volume are two long essays: “Materialism and Revolution” and “Black Orpheus.” In the first, Sartre places himself solidly on the side of the revolutionary working class, arguing that materialism, as a form of determinism, is an inadequate theoretical foundation for working class consciousness and collective action. Revolutionaries require, on the contrary, the existential truth that in order to change the world they must be able, through their free projects, to transcend their present situation in the direction of an unborn future which only they themselves can build, and which will have meaning only for the future selves that they will be.
In “Black Orpheus,” Sartre analyses the radical francophone poetry of the African diaspora, inevitably recalling his famous “Preface” to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and reminding us of Sartre’s absolute commitment to the anticolonialist struggle.
Listen to the first brilliantly beautiful lines of this magnificent essay: “What were you hoping, when you removed the gags that stopped up these black mouths? That they would sing your praises? Did you think, when the heads our fathers had ground into the dust had raised themselves up again, you would see adoration in their eyes? Here are black men standing, men looking at us, and I want you to feel, as I do, the shock of being seen. For, the white man has, for three thousand years, enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen.”
The Aftermath of War was a declaration that the era of imperialist white supremacy was over—that no matter how long it took, and what sacrifices it entailed, a new classless and antiracist world was not merely in birth, but had already been born and was taking up arms in its own defense. That this struggle outlived Sartre, and continues to this day, is all the more reason to take up his texts once again, and to read them not as historical curiosities, but for the value they may yet hold for our common future.
This article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (The queer issue).