Since Sartre’s essay What is Literature? there has been less theoretical debate about committed and autonomous literature. Nevertheless, the controversy over commitment remains urgent, so far as anything that merely concerns the life of the mind can be today, as opposed to sheer human survival. Sartre was moved to issue his manifesto because he saw—and he was certainly not the first to do so—works of art displayed side by side in a pantheon of optional edification, decaying into cultural commodities. In such coexistence, they desecrate each other. If any work, without its author necessarily intending it, aims at a supreme effect, none can thereby truly tolerate a neighbour beside it. This salutary intolerance holds not only for individual works, but also for aesthetic genres or attitudes such as those once symbolized in the now half-forgotten controversy over commitment. There are two ‘positions on objectivity’ which are constantly at war with one another, even when intellectual life falsely presents them as at peace. A work of art that is committed strips the magic from a work of art that is content to be a fetish, an idle past-time for those who would like to sleep through the
Contemporary literature itself suggests doubts as to the omnipotence of these alternatives. For it is not yet so completely subjugated to the course of the world as to constitute rival fronts. The Sartrean goats and the Valéryan sheep will not be separated. Even if politically motivated, commitment in itself remains politically polyvalent so long as it is not reduced to propaganda, whose pliancy mocks any commitment by the subject. On the other hand, its opposite, known in Russian catechisms as formalism, is not decried only by Soviet officials or libertarian existentialists; even ‘vanguard’ critics themselves frequently accuse socalled abstract texts of a lack of provocation, of social aggressivity. Conversely, Sartre cannot praise Picasso’s Guernica too highly; yet he could hardly be convicted of formalist sympathies in music or painting. He restricts his notion of commitment to literature because of its conceptual character: ‘The writer deals with meanings’.footnote1 Of course, but not only with them. If no word which enters a literary work ever wholly frees itself from its meanings in ordinary speech, so no literary work, not even the traditional novel, leaves these meanings unaltered, as they were outside it. Even an ordinary ‘was’, in a report of something that was not, acquires a new formal quality from the fact that it was not so. The same process occurs in the higher levels of meaning of a work, all the way up to what once used to be called its ‘Idea’. The special position that Sartre accords to literature must also be suspect to anyone who does not unconditionally subsume diverse aesthetic genres under a superior universal concept. The rudiments of external meanings are the irreducibly non-artistic elements in art. Its formal principle lies not in them, but in the dialectic of both moments—which accomplishes the transformation
The social function of the talk about commitment has meanwhile become somewhat confused. Cultural conservatives who demand that a work of art should say something, join forces with their political opponents against atelic, hermetic works of art. Eulogists of ‘relevance’ are more likely to find Sartre’s Huis Clos profound, than to listen patiently to a text whose language jolts signification and by its very distance from ‘meaning’ revolts in advance against positivist subordination of meaning. For the atheist Sartre, on the other hand, the conceptual import of art is the premise of commitment. Yet works banned in the East are sometimes demagogically denounced by local guardians of the authentic message because they apparently say what they in fact do not say. The Nazis were already using the term ‘cultural bolshevism’ under the Weimar Republic, and hatred of what it refers to has survived the epoch of Hitler, when it was institutionalized. Today it flares up again just as it did forty years ago, at works of the same kind, including some whose origins now go a long way back and are unmistakably part of an established tradition.
Newspapers and magazines of the radical Right constantly stir up indignation against what is unnatural, over-intellectual, morbid and decadent: they know their readers. The insights of social psychology into the authoritarian personality confirm them. The basic features of this type include conformism, respect for a petrified façade of opinion and society, and resistance to impulses that disturb its order or evoke inner elements of the unconscious that cannot be admitted. This hostility to anything alien or alienating can accommodate itself much more easily to literary realism of any provenance, even if it proclaims itself critical or socialist, than to works which swear allegiance to no political slogans, but whose mere guise is enough to disrupt the whole system of rigid coordinates that governs authoritarian personalities—to which the latter cling all the more fiercely, the less capable they are of spontaneous appreciation of anything not officially approved. Campaigns to prevent the staging of Brecht’s plays in Western Germany belong to a relatively superficial layer of political consciousness. They were not even particularly vigorous, or they would have taken much crasser forms after 13 August.footnote2 By contrast, when the social contract with reality is abandoned, and literary works no longer speak as though they were reporting fact, hairs start to bristle. Not the least of the weaknesses of the debate on commitment is that it ignores the effect produced by works whose own formal laws pay no heed to coherent effects. So long as it fails to understand what the shock of the unintelligible can communicate, the whole dispute resembles shadowboxing. Confusions in discussion of the problem do not indeed alter it,
In aesthetic theory, ‘commitment’ should be distinguished from ‘tendency’. Committed art in the proper sense is not intended to generate ameliorative measures, legislative acts or practical institutions—like earlier propagandist (tendency) plays against syphilis, duels, abortion laws or borstals—but to work at the level of fundamental attitudes. For Sartre, its task is to awaken the free choice of the agent, that makes authentic existence possible at all, as opposed to the neutrality of the spectator. But what gives commitment its aesthetic advantage over tendentiousness also renders the content to which the artist commits himself inherently ambiguous. In Sartre, the notion of choice—originally a Kierkegaardian category—is heir to the Christian doctrine ‘He who is not with me is against me’, but now voided of any concrete theological content. What remains is merely the abstract authority of a choice enjoined, with no regard for the fact that the very possibility of choosing depends on what can be chosen. The archetypal situation always cited by Sartre to demonstrate the irreducibility of freedom merely underlines this. Within a predetermined reality, freedom becomes a vacant claim: Herbert Marcuse has exposed the absurdity of the philosophical theorem that it is always possible inwardly either to accept or to reject martyrdom.footnote3 Yet this is precisely what Sartre’s dramatic situations are designed to demonstrate. But his plays are nevertheless bad models of his own existentialism, because they display in their respect for truth the whole administered universe which his philosophy ignores: the lesson we learn from them is one of unfreedom. Sartre’s theatre of ideas sabotages the aims of his categories. This is not an individual inadequacy of his plays. It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads. In fact, as soon as committed works of art do instigate decisions at their own level, the decisions themselves become interchangeable. Because of this ambiguity, Sartre has with great candour confessed that he expects no real changes in the world from literature: a scepticism which reflects both the historical mutations of society and of the practical function of literature since the days of Voltaire. The principle of commitment thus slides towards the proclivities of the author, in keeping with the extreme subjectivism of Sartre’s philosophy, which for all its materialist undertones, still audibly echoes German speculative idealism. In his literary theory, the work of art becomes an appeal to subjects, because it is itself nothing other than a declaration by a subject of his own choice or failure to choose.
Sartre will not allow that every work of art, by its inception alone, confronts the writer, however free he may be, with objective demands of composition. His intention becomes simply one element among them. Sartre’s question, ‘Why write?’, and his solution of it in a ‘deeper choice’,
But however sublime, thoughts can never be much more than one of the materials for art. Sartre’s plays are vehicles for the author’s ideas, which have been left behind in the race of aesthetic forms. They operate with traditional intrigues, exalted by an unshaken faith in meanings which can be transferred from art to reality. But the theses they illustrate, or where possible state, misuse the emotions which Sartre’s own drama aims to express, by making them examples. They thereby disavow themselves. When one of his most famous plays ends with the dictum ‘Hell is other people’, it sounds like a quotation from Being and Nothingness, and it might just as well have been ‘Hell is ourselves’. The combination of solid plot, and equally solid, extractable idea won Sartre great success and made him, without doubt against his honest will, acceptable to the culture industry. The high level of abstraction of such thesis-art led him into the mistake of letting some of his best works, the film Les Jeux sont Faits or the play Les Mains Sales, be performed as political events, and not just to an audience of victims in the dark. In much the same way, the current ideology—which Sartre detests—confuses the actions and sufferings of paper leaders with the objective movement of history. Interwoven in the veil of personalization is the idea that human beings are in control and decide, not anonymous machinery, and that there is life on the commanding heights of society: Beckett’s moribund grotesques suggest the truth about that. Sartre’s vision prevents him from recognizing the hell he revolts against. Many of his phrases could be parroted by his mortal enemies.