George Orwell Reviews a Book by That “Bag of Wind,” Jean-Paul Sartre (1948)

Yes­ter­day we fea­tured George Orwell’s review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf — not just an iso­lat­ed news­pa­per piece, or one of a scat­tered few, in a life oth­er­wise spent churn­ing out impor­tant nov­els like Ani­mal Farm and 1984, but a par­tic­u­lar­ly per­cep­tive book review among the many in his pro­lif­ic jour­nal­is­tic career. (He even wrote “Con­fes­sions of a Book Review­er,” the defin­i­tive arti­cle on that prac­tice.) Today we have anoth­er of Orwell’s pieces tak­ing on a well-known 20th-cen­tu­ry Con­ti­nen­tal fig­ure: this time, the French exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher Jean-Paul Sartre and his book Por­trait of the Anti­semite.

orwell letter

But as a pre­lude to the review, have a look at the Octo­ber 1948 let­ter above, post­ed orig­i­nal­ly at Let­ters of Note. In it, Orwell writes to his pub­lish­er Fred­er­ic War­burg, keep­ing him post­ed on the state of the man­u­script of 1984. Then, at the very end, he adds that “I have just had Sartre’s book on anti­semitism, which you pub­lished, to review. I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot.” That “good boot,” which ran in The Observ­er the next month, goes like this:

Anti­semitism is obvi­ous­ly a sub­ject that needs seri­ous study, but it seems unlike­ly that it will get it in the near future. The trou­ble is that so long as anti­semitism is regard­ed sim­ply as a dis­grace­ful aber­ra­tion, almost a crime, any­one lit­er­ate enough to have heard the word will nat­u­ral­ly claim to be immune from it; with the result that books on anti­semitism tend to be mere exer­cis­es in cast­ing motes out of oth­er peo­ple’s eyes. M. Sartre’s book is no excep­tion, and it is prob­a­bly no bet­ter for hav­ing been writ­ten in 1944, in the uneasy, self-jus­ti­fy­ing, quis­ling-hunt­ing peri­od that fol­lowed on the Lib­er­a­tion.

At the begin­ning, M. Sartre informs us that anti­semitism has no ratio­nal basis: at the end, that it will not exist in a class­less soci­ety, and that in the mean­time it can per­haps be com­bat­ed to some extent by edu­ca­tion and pro­pa­gan­da. These con­clu­sions would hard­ly be worth stat­ing for their own sake, and in between them there is, in spite of much cer­e­bra­tion, lit­tle real dis­cus­sion of the sub­ject, and no fac­tu­al evi­dence worth men­tion­ing.

We are solemn­ly informed that anti­semitism is almost unknown among the work­ing class. It is a mal­a­dy of the bour­geoisie, and, above all, of that goat upon whom all our sins are laid, the “pet­ty bour­geois.” With­in the bour­geoisie it is sel­dom found among sci­en­tists and engi­neers. It is a pecu­liar­i­ty of peo­ple who think of nation­al­i­ty in terms of inher­it­ed cul­ture and prop­er­ty in terms of land.

Why these peo­ple should pick on Jews rather than some oth­er vic­tim M. Sartre does not dis­cuss, except, in one place, by putting for­ward the ancient and very dubi­ous the­o­ry that the Jews are hat­ed because they are sup­posed to have been respon­si­ble for the Cru­ci­fix­ion. He makes no attempt to relate anti­semitism to such obvi­ous­ly allied phe­nom­e­na as for instance, colour prej­u­dice.

Part of what is wrong with M. Sartre’s approach is indi­cat­ed by his title. “The” anti-Semi­te, he seems to imply all through the book, is always the same kind of per­son, rec­og­niz­able at a glance and, so to speak, in action the whole time. Actu­al­ly one has only to use a lit­tle obser­va­tion to see that anti­semitism is extreme­ly wide­spread, is not con­fined to any one class, and, above all, in any but the worst cas­es, is inter­mit­tent.

But these facts would not square with M. Sartre’s atom­ised vision of soci­ety. There is, he comes near to say­ing, no such thing as a human being, there are only dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of men, such as “the” work­er and “the” bour­geois, all clas­si­fi­able in much the same way as insects. Anoth­er of these insect-like crea­tures is “the” Jew, who, it seems, can usu­al­ly be dis­tin­guished by his phys­i­cal appear­ance. It is true that there are two kinds of Jew, the “Authen­tic Jew,” who wants to remain Jew­ish, and the “Inau­then­tic Jew,” who would like to be assim­i­lat­ed; but a Jew, of whichev­er vari­ety, is not just anoth­er human being. He is wrong, at this stage of his­to­ry, if he tries to assim­i­late him­self, and we are wrong if we try to ignore his racial ori­gin. He should be accept­ed into the nation­al com­mu­ni­ty, not as an ordi­nary Eng­lish­man, French­man, or what­ev­er it may be, but as a Jew.

It will be seen that this posi­tion is itself dan­ger­ous­ly close to anti-semi­tism. Race prej­u­dice of any kind is a neu­ro­sis, and it is doubt­ful whether argu­ment can either increase or dimin­ish it, but the net effect of books of this kind, if they have an effect, is prob­a­bly to make anti­semitism slight­ly more preva­lent than it was before. The first step towards seri­ous study of anti­semitism is to stop regard­ing it as a crime. Mean­while, the less talk there is about “the” Jew or “the” anti­semite, as a species of ani­mal dif­fer­ent from our­selves, the bet­ter.

In Phi­los­o­phy Now, Mar­tin Tyrrell writes on Orwell’s rela­tion­ship to the sub­ject, which he saw “as a kind of gra­tu­itous clev­er­ness and he had no appetite for that. In Orwell’s writ­ings, fic­tion or non-fic­tion, there are few good intel­lec­tu­als. Where they appear, then it is usu­al­ly only to spin words with­out mean­ing. At best, they are inad­ver­tent­ly con­fus­ing; at worst, delib­er­ate­ly so: Marx­ists, for exam­ple, or nation­al­ists or Anglo or Roman Catholics. Or Jean-Paul Sartre. [ … ] Bewil­dered by exis­ten­tial­ism, what most irked Orwell about Sartre was his seem­ing denial of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty.” Tyrrell describes Orwell as “an indi­vid­u­al­ist so much so that, when he came to list his rea­sons for becom­ing a writer, he put ‘sheer ego­ism’ at the top. In addi­tion, and much more con­tro­ver­sial­ly, his review of Mein Kampf sees in Hitler more than a lit­tle of the trag­ic Orwellian hero, the small man embarked upon a doomed revolt.” Not every­one, of course, will agree with Orwell’s aggres­sive­ly plain­spo­ken takes on Hitler and Nazism, or Sartre and exis­ten­tial­ism, but try sub­sti­tut­ing a vari­ety of oth­er con­tro­ver­sial “-isms” for “anti­semitism” in the review above, and you’ll see how we’d still think more clear­ly if we bore his obser­va­tions in mind today.

via Let­ters of Note 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Reviews Mein Kampf (1940)

George Orwell Explains in a Reveal­ing 1944 Let­ter Why He’d Write 1984

George Orwell’s 1984: Free eBook, Audio Book & Study Resources

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Sartre, Hei­deg­ger, Niet­zsche: Doc­u­men­tary Presents Three Philoso­phers in Three Hours

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Clas­sic Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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