Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre produced plays and novels like The Respectful Prostitute (1946), which explored racism in the American South. These works were criticized as too polemical to count as good literature. What might in the present day culminate only in a Twitter fight led Sartre to publish a whole book defending his practices, called What Is Literature? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast explains Sartre's view, outlining both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seriously anyway. In short, Sartre sees the act of writing fiction as an ethical appeal to his reader's freedom. The reader is challenged to hear the truths the work expresses, to understand and take action on them. More directly, the reader is challenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the reader's attention and imagination to "flesh out" the situations the book describes. The reader takes an active role in completing the work, and this role can be abandoned freely at any time. If a writer creates an escapist fantasy, the reader is invited to escape. If the writer produces a piece of lying propaganda, then the reader is being invited to collaborate in that fundamentally corrupt work.

So if writing is always an ethical, political act, then Sartre shouldn't be blamed for producing overtly political work. In fact, writers who deny that their work is political are dodging their own responsibility for playing haphazardly with this potentially dangerous tool. Their work will produce political effects whether they like it or not.

The Partially Examined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Literature) is a two-part treatment of the first two chapters of this text, weighing Sartre's words to try to understand them and determine whether they ultimately make sense. Listen to the full episode below or go subscribe to The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast at

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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Jorge Luis Borges Draws a Self-Portrait After Going Blind

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), one of the great writers to come out of Argentina, went blind when he was  only 55 years old. As unsettling as it must have been, it wasn't particularly a surprise. He once told The New York Times, "I knew I would go blind, because my father, my paternal grandmother, my great-grandfather, they had all gone blind."

In the years following that life-changing moment, Borges never learned braille and could no longer read. But he did continue to write; he served as the director of Argentina's National Library; he traveled and delivered an important series of lectures at Harvard on poetry (click to listen); and he even took a stab at drawing -- something he did fairly well earlier in life. (See our previous post: Two Drawings by Jorge Luis Borges Illustrate the Author’s Obsessions.)

Above, you can see a self portrait that Borges drew in the basement of the famous Strand Bookstore in New York City. According to the Times, he did this "using one finger to guide the pen he was holding with his other hand." After making the sketch, Borges entered the main part of the bookstore and started "listening to the room, the stacks, the books," and made the remarkable observation "You have as many books as we have in our national library.”

If you've ever been to The Strand, you know how many books it holds. Indeed, the store boasts of being "New York City's legendary home of 18 Miles of new, used and rare books." My guess is that Argentina's national library might have a few more volumes than that. But who is really counting?

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March 2014.

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Thomas Mann Explains the Nazis’ Ulterior Motive for Spreading Anti-Semitism in Rare 1940 Audio

Here's a rare recording of the German writer Thomas Mann, author of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, explaining what he sees as the real reason behind the systematic spreading of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

It's from an NBC radio address Mann gave on March 9, 1940, while he was living in California. Mann had gone into exile from Germany in 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor and began seizing dictatorial powers. The author had been an outspoken critic of the Nazi party since its emergence in the early twenties.

In 1930, a year after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mann gave a high-profile "Address to the Germans: An Appeal to Reason," in which he denounced the Nazis as barbarians. A Christian man married to a Jewish woman, Mann often spoke against the Nazi's anti-Semitism, which he saw as part of a larger assault on the Mediterranean underpinnings of Western Civilization. In the radio address, Mann says:

The anti-semitism of today, the efficient though artificial anti-Semitism of our technical age, is no object in itself. It is nothing but a wrench to unscrew, bit by bit, the whole machinery of our civilization. Or, to use an up-to-date simile, Anti-Semitism is like a hand grenade tossed over the wall to work havoc and confusion in the camp of democracy. That is its real and main purpose.

Later in the speech, Mann argues that the Nazi attack on the Jews is "but a starting signal for a general drive against the foundations of Christianity, that humanitarian creed for which we are forever indebted to the people of the Holy Writ, originated in the old Mediterranean world. What we are witnessing today is nothing else than the ever recurrent revolt of unconquered pagan instincts, protesting against the restrictions imposed by the Ten Commandments."

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared in our site in June 2013.

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700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.

But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The First American Picture Book, Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928)

For better (I’d say), or worse, the internet has turned cat people into what may be the world’s most powerful animal lobby. It has brought us fascinating animated histories of cats and animated stories about the cats of gothic genius and cat-loving author and illustrator Edward Gorey; cats blithely leaving inky pawprints on medieval manuscripts and politely but firmly refusing to be denied entry into a Japanese art museum. It has given us no shortage of delightful photos of artists with their cat familiars

Cat antics and awe have always been a very online phenomenon, but the mysterious and ridiculous, diminutive beasts of prey have also always been inseparable from art and culture. As further evidence, we bring you Millions of Cats, likely the “first truly American picture book done by an American author/artist,” explains a site devoted to it.

“Prior to its publication in 1928, there were only English picture books for the children’s perusal.” The book “sky rocketed Wanda Gág into instant fame and set in stone her reputation as a children’s author and illustrator.”

It set a standard for Caldecott-winning children’s literature for close to a hundred years since its appearance, though the award did not yet exist at the time. The book’s creator was “a fierce idealist and did not believe in altering her own aestheticism just because she was producing work for children. She liked to use stylized human figures, asymmetrical compositions, strong lines and slight spatial distortion.” She also loved cats, as befits an artist of her independent temperament, one shared by the likes of other cat-loving artists like T.S. Eliot and Charles Dickens.

Millions of Cats’ author and illustrator may not share in the fame of so many other artists who took pictures with their cats, but she and her cat Noopy were as photogenic as any other feline/human artistic duo, and she was a peer to the best of them. The book’s editor, Ernestine Evans, wrote in the Nation that Millions of Cats “is as important as the librarians say it is. Not only does it bring to book-making one of the most talented and original of American lithographers… but it is a marriage of picture and tale that is perfectly balanced.”

Gág (rhymes with “jog”) was “a celebrated artist… in the Greenwich Village-centic Modernist art scene in the 1920s,” writes Lithub, “a free-thinking, sex-positive leftist who also designed her own clothes and translated fairy tales.” She adapted the text from “a story she had made up to entertain her friends’ children,” with the millions of cats modeled on Noopy. Gág is the founding mother of children’s book dynasties like The Cat in the Hat and Pete the Cat, an artist whom millions of cat lovers can discover again or for the first time in a Newbery-winning 2006 collector’s edition.

Read a summary of the charming story of Millions of Cats at Lithub and learn more about her, the talented Gág family of artists, and her charming, very cat-friendly house here.

via LitHub

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Witty, Erudite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Painting of Asimov on his throne by Rowena Morill, via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone should read the Bible, and—I’d argue—should read it with a sharply critical eye and the guidance of reputable critics and historians, though this may be too much to ask for those steeped in literal belief. Yet fewer and fewer people do read it, including those who profess faith in a sect of Christianity. Even famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Melvyn Bragg have argued for teaching the Bible in schools—not in a faith-based context, obviously, but as an essential historical document, much of whose language, in the King James, at least, has made major contributions to literary culture. (Curiously—or not—atheists and agnostics tend to score far higher than believers on surveys of religious knowledge.)

There is a practical problem of separating teaching from preaching in secular schools, but the fact remains that so-called “biblical illiteracy” is a serious problem educators have sought to remedy for decades. Prominent Shakespeare scholar G.B. Harrison lamented it in the introduction to his 1964 edited edition, The Bible for Students of Literature and Art. “Today most students of literature lack this kind of education,” he wrote, “and have only the haziest knowledge of the book or of its contents, with the result that they inevitably miss much of the meaning and significance of many works of past generations. Similarly, students of art will miss some of the meaning of the pictures and sculptures of the past.”

Though a devout Catholic himself, Harrison’s aim was not to proselytize but to do right by his students. His edited Bible is an excellent resource, but it’s not the only book of its kind out there. In fact, no less a luminary, and no less a critic of religion, than scientist and sci-fi giant Isaac Asimov published his own guide to the Bible, writing in his introduction:

The most influential, the most published, the most widely read book in the history of the world is the Bible. No other book has been so studied and so analyzed and it is a tribute to the complexity of the Bible and eagerness of its students that after thousands of years of study there are still endless books that can be written about it.

Of those books, the vast majority are devotional or theological in nature. “Most people who read the Bible,” Asimov writes, “do so in order to get the benefit of its ethical and spiritual teachings.” But the ancient collection of texts “has a secular side, too,” he says. It is a “history book,” though not in the sense that we think of the term, since history as an evidence-based academic discipline did not exist until relatively modern times. Ancient history included all sorts of myths, wonders, and marvels, side-by-side with legendary and apocryphal events as well as the mundane and verifiable.

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, originally published in two volumes in 1968-69, then reprinted as one in 1981, seeks to demystify the text. It also assumes a level of familiarity that Harrison did not expect from his readers (and did not find among his students). The Bible may not be as widely-read as Asimov thought, even if sales suggest otherwise. Yet he does not expect that his readers will know “ancient history outside the Bible,” the sort of critical context necessary for understanding what its writings meant to contemporary readers, for whom the “places and people” mentioned “were well known.”

“I am trying,” Asimov writes in his introduction, “to bring in the outside world, illuminate it in terms of the Biblical story and, in return, illuminate the events of the Bible by adding to it the non-Biblical aspects of history, biography, and geography.” This describes the general methodology of critical Biblical scholars. Yet Asimov’s book has a distinct advantage over most of those written by, and for, academics. Its tone, as one reader comments, is “quick and fun, chatty, non-academic." It's approachable and highly readable, that is, yet still serious and erudite.

Asimov’s approach in his guide is not hostile or “anti-religious,” as another reader observes, but he was not himself friendly to religious beliefs, or superstitions, or irrational what-have-yous. In the interview above from 1988, he explains that while humans are inherently irrational creatures, he nonetheless felt a duty “to be a skeptic, to insist on evidence, to want things to make sense.” It is, he says, akin to the calling believers feel to “spread God’s word.” Part of that duty, for Asimov, included making the Bible make sense for those who appreciate how deeply embedded it is in world culture and history, but who may not be interested in just taking it on faith. Find an old copy of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible at Amazon.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

William S. Burroughs’ Manifesto for Overthrowing a Corrupt Government with Fake News and Other Prophetic Methods: It’s Now Published for the First Time

The Boy Scouts of America have faced some deserved criticism, undeserved ridicule, and have been cruelly used as props, but I think it’s safe to say that they still bear a pretty wholesome image for a majority of Americans. That was probably no less the case and perhaps a good deal more so in 1969, but the end of the sixties was not by any stretch a simpler time. It was a period, writes Scott McLemee, “when the My Lai Massacre, the Manson Family and the Weather Underground were all in the news.” The Zodiac Killer was on the loose, a general air of bleakness prevailed.

William S. Burroughs responded to this madness with a counter-madness of his own in "The Revised Boy Scout Manual," “an impassioned yet sometimes incoherent rebuke to ossified political ideologies,” writes Kirkus. We can presume Burroughs meant his instructions for overthrowing corrupt governments to satirically comment on the outdoorsy status quo youth cult. But we can also see the manual taking as its starting point certain values the Scouts champion, at their best: obsessive attention to detail, MacGyver-like ingenuity, and good old American self-reliance.

Want to bring down the government? You can do it yourself… with fake news.

Boing Boing quotes a long passage from the book that shows Burroughs as a comprehensive, if not quite wholesome, Scout advisor, describing how one might use mass media’s methods to disrupt its message, and to transmit messages of your own. We might think he is foreseeing, even recommending, techniques we now see used to a no-longer-shocking degree.

You have an advantage which your opposing player does not have. He must conceal his manipulations. You are under no such necessity. In fact you can advertise the fact that you are writing news in advance and trying to make it happen by techniques which anybody can use.

And that makes you NEWS. And a TV personality as well, if you play it right. 

You construct fake news broadcasts on video camera... And you scramble your fabricated news in with actual news broadcasts.

We might read in Burroughs’ instructions the methods of YouTube propagandists, social media manipulators, and some of the most powerful people in the world. Burroughs does not recommend taking over the media apparatus by seizing its power, but rather using technology to make “cutup video tapes” and ham radio broadcasts featuring documentary media spliced together with fabrications. These “techniques could swamp the mass media with total illusion,” he writes. “It will be seen that the falsifications in syllabic Western languages are in point of fact actual virus mechanisms.”

Burroughs is not simply writing a reference for making fearmongering propaganda. Even when it comes to the subject of fear, he sometimes sounds as if he is revising Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory for his own similarly violent times. “Let us say the message is fear. For this we take all the past fear shots of the subject we can collect or evoke. We cut these in with fear words and pictures, with threats, etc. This is all acted out and would be upsetting enough in any case. Now let’s try it scrambled and see if we get an even stronger effect.”

What would this effect be? One “comparable to post-hypnotic suggestion”? Who is the audience, and would they be, a la Clockwork Orange, a captive one? Did Burroughs see people on street corners screening their cut-up videos, despite the fact that consumer-level video technology did not yet exist? Is this a cinematic experiment, mass media-age occult ritual, compendium of practical magic for insider media adepts?

See what you can make of Burroughs’ "The Revised Boy Scout Manual" (subtitled “an electronic revolution”). The book has been reissued by the Ohio State Press, with an afterword (read it here) by V. Vale, publisher of the legendary, radical magazine RE/Search, who excerpted a part of the “Revised Manual” in the early 1980s and planned to publish it in full before “a personal relationship blowup” put an end to the project.

McLemee titles his review of Burrough’s rediscovered manifesto “Distant Early Warning,” and much of it does indeed sound eerily prophetic. But we should also bear in mind the book is itself a countercultural pastiche, designed to scramble minds for reasons only Burroughs truly knew. He was a “practicing Scientologist at the time” of the book’s composition, “albeit not for much longer,” and he does prescribe use of the e-meter and makes scattered references to L. Ron Hubbard. But as a practitioner of his own precepts, Burroughs would not have written a monograph uncritically promoting one belief system or another. (Well, maybe just the once.) He also quotes Hassan-I Sabbah, discusses Mayan hieroglyphics, and talks General Semantics.

"The Revised Boy Scout Manual" “has elements of libertarian manifesto, paramilitary handbook, revenge fantasy and dark satire,” McLemee writes, “and wherever the line between fiction and nonfiction may be, it’s never clear for long.” In this, Burroughs only scrambles elements already in abundance at the end of the sixties and in the early seventies, during which he revised and recorded the work several times as he transitioned himself out of an organization that maintained total control through mass media. Like Marshall McLuhan, Noam Chomsky and others, he was beginning to see this phenomenon everywhere he looked. Burroughs' most lasting influence may be that, like the late-60s Situationists, he devised a cunning and effective way to turn mass media in on itself, one with perhaps more sinister implications.

via Boing Boing

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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