With plenty of time to himself during the Phoney War, Sartre mused about André Gide’s ethic of disponibilité:
Barnabooth sells all his goods, ‘castles, yachts, cars, huge properties…’ and he calls that ‘dematerializing his fortune.’ The gesture is inspired by that of Ménalque or of Michel in L’Immoraliste. Gidian.
That word ‘dematerialize’ made me dream. For when you come down to it, it’s really a question of detaching yourself from goods, as the concrete aspect of wealth, and of keeping only its abstract aspect: money. Here, moreover, in the guise of bundles of shares and cheques.
In short, that’s the advice given by Gide and followed by Barnabooth: to swap real possession for symbolic possession, to swap property-wealth for sign-wealth.
It’s no accident that Gide preaches disponibilité. Basically, the Gidian homme disponible is the one whose capital isn’t tied up. And what I saw clearly was that Gide’s moral code is one of those myths that marks the transition from big bourgeois property — concrete ownership of the house, fields and the land; private luxury — to the abstract property of capitalism.
The prodigal son is the rich grain-merchant’s child who becomes a banker. His father had bags of grain, he has bundles of shares. Possession of nothing, but this nothing is a mortgage on everything.
Do not, O Nathanael, seek God anywhere but everywhere: reject material possession, which limits the horizon and makes God a withdrawal into oneself; swap it for symbolic possession, which will permit you to take trains and boats and seek God everywhere. And you’ll find him everywhere, so long as you put your signature on this little bit of paper, in your cheque-book.
I’m not exaggerating: that’s exactly what the Gidian Barnabooth, on page 18, calls a ‘burning quest for God.’ And Gide himself, now a traveller and now head of the patriarchal community of Cuverville, is a great transitional figure between the propertied bourgeoisie of the 19th century and the capitalism of the 20th.
Try to ignore Sartre’s idiosyncratic terminology, which confuses the issue somewhat.
Here he mixes up large-scale historical changes in property systems (the movement from what he calls the ‘big bourgeois property’ of the Second Empire to the ‘abstract capitalist’ of the Third Republic) with an individual’s portfolio choice (allocating wealth between liquid financial assets and productive capital goods).
The transition Sartre describes is that from the typical nineteenth-century personification of capital — the individual entrepreneur whom Marx called ‘our friend Mr. Moneybags’ — to the twentieth-century world of corporate enterprises.
In that later period, the capitalist agent is famously personified by several different figures (shareholders, managers, etc.), each of whom takes care of a specialized financial, administrative or supervisory responsibility within a firm or spread out across an economy.
In this team effort, Gide’s homme disponible performs the rentier function.
Nathanael is thus exhorted to stray far from ‘the concrete aspect of wealth’ (organizing and superintending the production process). He can reap a flow of dividends, interest payments, capital gains and royalties while he idly enjoys the fruits of the earth, frittering his income away on la volupté just as an Edwardian coupon clipper might have done on servants for his country house.
This historical development (in which the business enterprise also becomes its own legal person and accounting entity) is one with the increasing scale and mechanization of production.
Sartre, himself an avid traveller, plainly regarded Gide’s advice as frivolous (‘it would be absurd to offer Ménalque as an example to an unskilled labourer, a man out of work or an American negro’. But Nathanael is ‘a rich white Aryan, the heir of a great bourgeois family…’).
The ‘princely games’ of Lafcadio were replaced in Sartre’s work by a succession of pitiful, wealthy young runaways and would-be Nietzscheans, from Lucien Fleurier to The Reprieve‘s Philippe.
And in place of disponibilité was the tough-minded doctrine of committed literature:
Since the writer has no way of escaping his time, we want him to embrace his era — tightly. It is his only chance; it was made for him and he for it… We don’t want to miss out on anything of our time. There may be better ones, but this one is ours: we have only this life to live, amid this war, and perhaps this revolution…
Thus, by taking part in the singularity of our era, we ultimately make contact with the eternal…
We are obliged to be satisfied with forging our history blindly, one day at a time, choosing from all the options the one which seems best to us at present… We are inside.
Here can be detected Sartre’s obsession with captivity, a horror and fascination, most notable in his plays, with themes of confinement and sequestration.
As an aggressive statement of art’s debt to politics, Sartre’s editorial introduction to Les Temps modernes is often grouped with the avant-garde manifestos of the mid-twentieth century. But littérature engagée was a label with no hint of a collective movement or school behind it.
As with the later invention of ‘Abstract Expressionism’ by art dealers, critics and the CIA, Sartre’s declaration was clearly a new kind of exercise in commercial self-promotion, a rather platitudinous and non-committal branding of journalistic territory in postwar France’s up-ended publishing scene.
But, more importantly, was Sartre’s ‘writing for one’s age’ not also marked by the same mutation in property forms he described above?
For the other side of this historical development (growth of the limited-liability company and a class of idle creditors) was what happened to the ‘concrete aspect of wealth’. Who took responsibility, while Nathanael larked vagrantly about, for the capital goods that were tied up in accumulation, and the production processes that needed overseeing?
Here could be found the emergence of professional managers and bureaucratic functionaries, accountable to owners, with delegated control rights in a firm or organization’s physical assets (i.e. decision-making power over how some item of equipment was to be used or task undertaken). These administrators might or might not receive property income in the form of high salaries and stock options. They might be more like Veblen’s engineers.
More to the point, their prerogatives were tied to specific assets, which they themselves could not transfer or liquidate. The factories and machines over which they exercised power could not be bought, sold, or bequeathed for their private benefit — not by anyone in the case of state property, nor by a non-owning manager in the case of privately owned wealth.
For them, therefore, not Nathanael’s possession of ‘nothing’, but acute dependence on this thing. If God was everywhere for Gide, eternity was right here and now for Sartre.
The functionary was marooned on an island rather than floating in a sea, engaged in an ongoing dyadic transaction with the same corporation, cartel or government agency, rather than a series of one-shot interactions in spot markets. He could not shirk what, in Sartre’s words, was ‘his only chance; it was made for him and he for it.’
Sartre likewise advocated a thoroughgoing embrace of one’s era and all its features. He himself practised this clinch without scruple (‘In vain would we attempt to be our own historians’), comparing it, as did De Gaulle, to a lover, participating in all its skirmishes, and (here he may have been describing his opportunistic relationship with the PCF) ‘choosing from all the options the one’ which seemed ‘best at the present.’
Marxists, on the other hand, have typically suggested that some critical distance from one’s contemporary circumstances is a good thing.
In January 1917 Rosa Luxemburg wrote from prison to Luise Kautsky:
Probably for you the desire for music, as for all other things, has gone by for a while, your mind is full of concern about world history, which has all gone wrong, and your heart is full of sighs over the wretchedness of—Scheidemann and comrades. And everyone who writes to me moans and sighs in the same way.
Don’t you understand that the overall disaster is much too great to be moaned and groaned about?
I can grieve or feel bad if Mimi is sick, or if you are not well. But when the whole world is out of joint, then I merely seek to understand what is going on and why, and then I have done my duty, and I am calm and in good spirits from then on. Ultra posse nemo obligatur.
And then for me there still remains everything else that makes me happy: music and painting and clouds and doing botany in the spring and good books and Mimi and you and much more. —In short, I am “stinking rich” and I’m thinking of staying that way to the end.
This giving oneself up completely to the headaches and the misery of the day is completely incomprehensible and intolerable to me.
See, for example, how Goethe stood above things with cool composure. But think what he must have gone through: the Great French Revolution, which must surely have seemed like a bloody and completely pointless farce from up close, and then from 1793 till 1815 an unbroken series of wars, when once again the world must have seemed like a madhouse turned loose.
Yet at the same time how calmly, with such equanimity, he pursued his studies about the metamorphosis of plants, the theory of colours, and a thousand other things. I don’t ask that you be a poet like Goethe, but everyone can adopt for themselves his outlook on life — the universalism of interests, the inner harmony — or at least strive toward that.
And if you say: but Goethe was not a political fighter, my opinion is this: a fighter is precisely a person who must strive to rise above things, otherwise one’s nose will get stuck in every bit of nonsense. — Obviously I’m thinking of a fighter on the grand scale, not a weathervane of the calibre of the “great men” who sit around your table…
Weimar Goethe as a model held up for political emulation by revolutionary socialists?
Perverse, one would think.
Yet in 1950 Isaac Deutscher would also include Goethe among ‘great “intellectuals” who, in a similar situation in the past [the Napoleonic Wars], refused to identify themselves with any established Cause. Their attitude seemed incomprehensible to many of their contemporaries: but history has proved their judgement to have been superior to the phobias and hatreds of their age’:
Goethe opportunistically bowed to every invader. But as a thinker and man, he remained noncommittal and aloof… His aloofness, in these as in other matters, gained him the reputation of ‘the Olympian’; and the label was not always meant to be flattering. But his Olympian appearance was due least of all to an inner indifference to the fate of his contemporaries. It veiled his drama: his incapacity and reluctance to identify himself with causes, each an inextricable, tangle of right and wrong…
All three – Jefferson, Goethe, and Shelley – were in a sense outsiders to the great conflict of their time, and because of this they interpreted their time with more truthfulness and penetration than did the fearful – the hate-ridden partisans on either side.
Now as then, the organs of conventional opinion present a menu of false choices — Napoleon or the Holy Alliance? — announcing that these options are exhaustive, and one of them must be chosen.
An urge to clamorously participate in every ‘struggle’ — ‘the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie’, for fear of lost opportunity, accusations of quietism, or organizational market share — turns ambitious ‘political fighters’ into weathervanes, their ‘nose stuck in every bit of nonsense’.
Thus the ‘engaged’ activists of today’s radical protest politics, heedless of principle and refusing to abstain, participate in every trifling and dangerous ‘movement’ that arises: taking up positions in a meaningless Kulturkampf, venturing opinions on this or that media inanity, preferring one monstrous ‘lesser evil’ to another, lending support to one wing of the propertied elite over today’s provisional enemy, greeting wars of aggression as salutary ‘revolutions’.
In the political life of the advanced economies, such squabbles usually involve, at best, tinkering with markets (through subsidies, taxes or other regulation) to shift economic surpluses between groups, transferring rents from one constituency or special interest to another. To immerse oneself in these ‘policy’ debates is to live an arid life (but to do so professionally can attract its rewards).
What is described loftily as a ‘war of position’ (echoing Karl Kautsky’s ‘strategy of attrition’) typically involves the creation of a durable bureaucratic apparatus that can be used for self-dealing or provides a platform for career advancement.
Moreover, if such projects are to be sustained their participants must find solace and consolation where they can. Typically this is done by investing some political agent or figurehead with exaggerated potential, finding illusory messages of hope or imagining that headway is being made. This obliges activists to nourish illusions in what exists: to find silver linings and abandon trenchant thought.
I’ve written before about these varieties of accommodation to what exists.
Motivated mental states include wishful thinking (adapting one’s beliefs to fit one’s desires) and sour grapes (making a virtue of necessity, consenting to the inevitable, or consoling oneself by modifying one’s desires to exclude what is unattainable). Motivation affects not only high-level cognitive processing (i.e. how people think about the world) but basic activities like visual perception.
The futility and corruption of the weathervane can be avoided, as Luxemburg explained to her friend, by coolly taking a little distance. Against Sartre, doing one’s intellectual duty requires treating the present as history: sceptically and mercilessly examining its limitations, including those of its pseudo-oppositional elements, just as one would the past.
Of course, to do this has its bearing on the morale of others. As ‘incomprehensible’ as was the silence of Goethe or Shelley’s rage to their contemporaries, cool appraisals often invite accusations of cynicism (or idealism), purism, maximalism, sterility, pessimism.