Edward Said Recalls His Depressing Meeting With Sartre, de Beauvoir & Foucault (1979)

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I have not had the occa­sion to meet my intel­lec­tu­al or lit­er­ary heroes, those still alive, of course. And from most of the accounts of those who have, it’s prob­a­bly for the best. I’ve heard sto­ries from men­tors and friends—of drunk­en indis­cre­tions, boor­ish rude­ness, unfor­give­able utter­ances, arro­gance, pet­ti­ness, petu­lance, and every oth­er kind of off­putting behav­ior. Our idols, after all, are only human.

Such dis­ap­point­ment was the expe­ri­ence of Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can schol­ar and writer Edward Said when he met three intel­lec­tu­al French giants—Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beau­voir, and Michel Fou­cault—in 1979. Invit­ed to France by Sartre and de Beau­voir for a con­fer­ence on Mid­dle East peace after the end of the war between Egypt and Israel, Said leapt at the chance, although not before ensur­ing that the telegram he had received was gen­uine.

“At first I thought the cable was a joke of some sort,” wrote Said in the Lon­don Review of Books in 2000, “It might just as well have been an invi­ta­tion from Cosi­ma and Richard Wag­n­er to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Vir­ginia Woolf to spend an after­noon at the offices of the Dial.”

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The invi­ta­tion was for real, and weeks lat­er, Said was off to Paris. Upon arrival, he learned that for unde­fined “secu­ri­ty rea­sons,” the con­fer­ence had been moved to Foucault’s apart­ment, and once there, he encoun­tered de Beau­voir, who quick­ly left an unfa­vor­able impres­sion on him, then dis­ap­peared.

Beau­voir was already there in her famous tur­ban, lec­tur­ing any­one who would lis­ten about her forth­com­ing trip to Teheran with Kate Mil­lett, where they were plan­ning to demon­strate against the chador; the whole idea struck me as patro­n­is­ing and sil­ly, and although I was eager to hear what Beau­voir had to say, I also realised that she was quite vain and quite beyond argu­ing with at that moment. Besides, she left an hour or so lat­er (just before Sartre’s arrival) and was nev­er seen again.

Not long after­wards, Said writes, Fou­cault informed him he would be leav­ing as well, “for his dai­ly bout of research at the Bib­lio­thèque Nationale.” Said describes Fou­cault as a “soli­tary philoso­pher” and “rig­or­ous thinker” but also “unwill­ing to say any­thing to me about Mid­dle East­ern politics”—with the excep­tion of the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion (for which he was part­ly present). Fou­cault described his time in Iran as “very excit­ing, very strange, crazy.” “I think (per­haps mis­tak­en­ly) I heard him say that in Teheran he had dis­guised him­self in a wig,” Said writes, “although a short while after his arti­cles appeared, he rapid­ly dis­tanced him­self from all things Iran­ian.” Fou­cault also, appar­ent­ly, dis­tanced him­self from the dis­cus­sion at hand because, Said sur­mis­es, of his sup­port for Israel.

Sartre, it appears from Said’s account, was very much at the cen­ter of the event. And yet, he seemed “old and frail,” and “was con­stant­ly sur­round­ed, sup­port­ed, prompt­ed by a small ret­inue of peo­ple on whom he was total­ly depen­dent.” At lunch, Said finds the “great man” almost as absent men­tal­ly as his part­ner was phys­i­cal­ly. Where “Beau­voir had been a seri­ous dis­ap­point­ment,” he was lat­er “con­vinced she would have livened things up.”

Sartre’s pres­ence, what there was of it, was strange­ly pas­sive, unim­pres­sive, affect­less. He said absolute­ly noth­ing for hours on end. At lunch he sat across from me, look­ing dis­con­so­late and remain­ing total­ly uncom­mu­nica­tive, egg and may­on­naise stream­ing hap­less­ly down his face. I tried to make con­ver­sa­tion with him, but got nowhere. He may have been deaf, but I’m not sure. In any case, he seemed to me like a haunt­ed ver­sion of his ear­li­er self, his prover­bial ugli­ness, his pipe and his non­de­script cloth­ing hang­ing about him like so many props on a desert­ed stage.

In his sole dis­course at the event, Said tells us, Sartre read “a pre­pared text of about two typed pages” full of “the most banal plat­i­tudes imag­in­able” and “about as infor­ma­tive as a Reuters dis­patch.” After­wards, “Sartre resumed his silence, and the pro­ceed­ings con­tin­ued as before.” The pol­i­tics of the con­fer­ence were by nature com­pli­cat­ed and sen­si­tive, to say the least. Relationships—such as that between Fou­cault and Gilles Deleuze, it seems (or so Deleuze told Said)—have bro­ken off after dis­agree­ments over Israel and Pales­tine.

said foucault

Image by Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Nev­er­the­less, on the basis of Sartre’s for­mer anti-colo­nial, anti-war stance and pas­sion­ate defense of Alger­ian independence—a posi­tion “which as a French­man must have been hard­er to hold than a posi­tion crit­i­cal of Israel”—Said had hoped Sartre would have at least some sym­pa­thy for the Pales­tin­ian cause. He was mis­tak­en. “Gone for­ev­er, he writes, “was that Sartre.” In a con­clud­ing rumi­na­tion, he attempts to explain what he observed:

I guess we need to under­stand why great old men are liable to suc­cumb either to the wiles of younger ones, or to the grip of an unmod­i­fi­able polit­i­cal belief. It’s a dispir­it­ing thought, but it’s what hap­pened to Sartre. With the excep­tion of Alge­ria, the jus­tice of the Arab cause sim­ply could not make an impres­sion on him, and whether it was entire­ly because of Israel or because of a basic lack of sym­pa­thy – cul­tur­al or per­haps reli­gious – it’s impos­si­ble for me to say.

For all its unpleas­ant­ness, how­ev­er, the encounter did not lessen Said’s fond­ness for Sartre. The author of Ori­en­tal­ism and The Ques­tion of Pales­tine (who is not with­out his own fierce crit­ics) begins his rec­ol­lec­tion of the meet­ing with a glow­ing appraisal of Sartre’s work, which had fall­en far out of favor at the time of the meet­ing. “A year after our brief and dis­ap­point­ing Paris encounter Sartre died,” he con­cludes, “I vivid­ly remem­ber how much I mourned his death.”

You can read Said’s com­plete diary entry here.

via Crit­i­cal The­o­ry

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Edward Said Speaks Can­did­ly about Pol­i­tics, His Ill­ness, and His Lega­cy in His Final Inter­view (2003)

Philosophy’s Pow­er Cou­ple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir, Fea­tured in 1967 TV Inter­view

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

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

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Comments (4)
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  • Zahra Aamer says:

    It’s qui­et a shame…an “open” web­site fails to prop­er­ly acknowl­edge and give due cred­it for an intel­lec­tu­al of Edward Said’s cal­i­bre besides this and his last inter­view. Alas, one of the most eru­dite writ­ers, one of the founders of post-colo­nial­ism along with Gay­a­tri Spi­vak, has no place in openculture(.com)!

  • dianne says:

    After read­ing “Adieux to Sartre”–by Beau­voir, with all the details of his last years ilness­es– there´s no rea­son what­so­ev­er to know such details as referred in this com­ment
    to describe Sartre´s mouth “drip­ping may­on­naise”
    is total­ly unncece­sary and cru­el…

  • Alex S says:

    It’s sur­pris­ing that an intel­lec­tu­al of Said’s cal­iber would lack sen­si­tiv­i­ty to such an extent. I get the feel­ing that his idealization/idolization of Sartre did­n’t let him see and acknowl­edge the man for the image he had formed of him. His reac­tion is rem­i­nis­cent of a boy shrink­ing in hor­ror at the sight of his father’s mor­tal­i­ty.

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