Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sartre and the Galway Dentist

I recently renewed my subscription to the London Review of Books having let it lapse, rather stupidly, for a couple of years. Most of the articles do end up on the website but reading the print edition is a lot more fun and a helluva lot less of a strain on the eye, considering the normal article length is 3000-5000 words.

In the latest edition, which annoyingly, I got almost a week after much of it was posted online, there is an interesting piece by Elif Batuman, a Stanford academic, which reviews Elisabeth Roudinesco's Philosophy in Turbulent Times, which has just been published in English. I'm not terribly equipped to assess Batuman's largely negative view of Roudinesco's book though I do agree with his view on the victim complex of Louis Althusser, following his murder of his wife, being familiar with much of Althusser's work, including his memoir The Future Lasts a Long Time. Even more disturbing than Althusser's crime, which was committed when he had slipped irrevocably into insanity was the way his friends closed ranks around him and even managed to recast him rather than his dead wife Hélène as the victim. If Irish readers of this blog find Aosdána members' unqualified support of Cathal Ó Searcaigh's recent shennanigans unseemly, well that was pretty tame stuff compared to the flurry of philosophes rushing to relativize their friend and colleague's crime.

But it is elsewhere in Batuman's article that my attention was snagged, in an amusing passage on Jean-Paul Sartre's visit to John Huston in Galway in 1959 to hammer out a screenplay on Freud. The project came to nothing because of a mounting animosity between the two men but Batuman's description of the visit merits quotation at length:

The Huston-Sartre collaboration fell apart in 1959, when Sartre
travelled to Huston’s home in Ireland to work on the script. The two
didn’t work well together. ‘There was no such thing as a conversation
with him,’ Huston later recalled. ‘He talked incessantly, and there was
no interrupting him. You’d wait for him to catch his breath, but he
wouldn’t.’ Meanwhile Sartre, in his letters to Simone de Beauvoir,
described Huston as ‘perfectly vacant, literally incapable of speaking
to those whom he has invited’. Evidently he didn’t realise that Huston
was waiting for him to catch his breath. The philosopher went on to
compare Huston’s ‘inner landscape’ to ‘heaps of ruins, abandoned
houses, plots of wasteland, swamps’: ‘He is empty,’ Sartre concluded,
‘except in his moments of infantile vanity, when he dons a red tuxedo,
or goes horseback riding (not very well).’ (Huston, of the infantile
red tuxedo, was equally bemused by Sartre’s wardrobe, its stark
invariance: ‘I never knew if he owned one grey suit or several
identical grey suits.’)

Who can fail to be entertained by this
picture of Sartre criticising somebody for being a bad rider? Or by the
anecdote about how he once had toothache and refused to go to Dublin,
as Huston suggested, to get it treated? Huston didn’t know any local
dentists, but Sartre found one, from whose surgery he emerged in a
matter of minutes, having had his tooth extracted. Huston – who,
despite his scepticism about America, had evidently not totally
renounced the ‘hygienism’ of his native country – wondered at Sartre’s
casual attitude to his teeth, but concluded that ‘a tooth more or less
made no difference in Sartre’s cosmos.’ Here you see the entire charm
of the existentialist way of life.

The A-list bitchiness is amusing enough, if to be hardly exceptional, but the vision of Sartre stumbling out of a West of Ireland dentist's surgery is one that needs to cherished for all eternity. It's the sketch that Monty Python never wrote.

LRB · Elif Batuman: On Complaining

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