In October 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre returned from the States to a newly-liberated Paris, still reeling from the effects of the war years, and the first thing he did was to give a lecture. When he arrived at the university he found the hall too packed with people for him actually to enter. It took him an hour to reach the lecturer’s podium and the atmosphere in the room was at fever-pitch, with many students fainting and having to be carried out over the heads of the audience. Once in place, Sartre spoke for two hours, without notes, and the result ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ became (and remains) a famous philosophical tract. Not because of the circumstances under which it was delivered, but because in it, Sartre responded to the effects of the war years with a complete change of mental direction. Where existentialism had been a pessimistic doctrine, he now saw it as fundamentally optimistic. Where it had been about alienated, isolated individuals, it was now about community.
His words had an electrifying effect on a Paris that was entering an intellectual renaissance period, headed up by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. Because these intellectuals moved around from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, their bases for working tended to be cafés, and the Boulevard Saint-Germain was where the action was. The upstairs of the Café Flore where Sartre and Beauvoir worked almost a full office day looked more like a classroom than a bar, and eventually Sartre had his own phone line put in. They were surrounded by the artists who would be the canonical names of the twentieth century, philosophers like Raymond Aron and Merleau-Ponty, writers like Jean Genet and Raymond Queneau, musicians like Edith Piaf. Picasso lived just around the corner and was eventually peer-pressurised into joining the Communist Party.
What an atmosphere Paris had then! What drive and engagement and focus! Gide was famous, Beckett just about to become so, Matisse was painting his Jazz series, the nouveau roman was about to be invented. Everyone was reading Hemingway and Steinbeck and the new writers from Africa and the Caribbean. When I read about this moment in history, what immediately crosses my mind is how very far we are nowadays from any such intellectual fervour. Can you imagine a lecture making the news headlines? Having the same crowd difficulties as a pop concert? I ponder the climate of anti-intellectualism that we live in (here in the UK at any rate) and wonder whence it has come. I can think of three main factors. The first is that what is intellectual is not commercial. It doesn’t attract a sufficiently large market to make money and therefore must function as best it can without resources, publicity or acclaim. The second is that we live in a science-dominated ideology and so ideas have become subject to great suspicion; objective proof is now the repository of intellectual authority and public approval, and hence can attract public and private funding. Thirdly, we have created a media that prefers its celebrities to have no actual basis for respect; it makes it much easier to set them up and knock them down perpetuating this odd democracy of fame that seems so necessary to modern society. It’s hard to find reasons to criticize Nobel prize winner, even if they can’t tie their own shoelaces or work out the bus route home, and so they remain mostly anonymous.
I do wonder whether we will ever find our way out of this cultural impasse. I don’t want the whole world to become serious-minded, I just think that writing, philosophy, the history of ideas, should regain its status as a valuable and effective part of the society we live in. There’s only one thought that gives me some hope: part of the reason why Paris enjoyed such a heady cultural era was because the Occupation had effectively killed all intellectual life stone dead. Paper shortages meant difficulty in obtaining printed matter, the theatres had been censored, many books had been banned. Freed from these constraints, and recognising the role intellectuals had played in the Resistance movement, the Parisians were hungry for exciting new ideas. Maybe a time will come when we, too, realise our starvation and feel ready to create a context in which thought and experimentation in the arts and humanities can once again flourish.