Sartre On Our Responsibility For Dead Lives: Implications For Teaching History
Haim Gordon and Rivca Gordon
Historical research was one of Jean-Paul Sartre's major concerns. Roquentin, the central character of his first novel, Nausea, has chosen the "profession of historian." (1) He comes to Bouville in order to write a history of Monsieur de Rollebon, who was active at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. Important documents pertaining to Rollebon's life are in the Bouville library. As the novel develops Roquentin decidesfor good reasonsto abandon his historical research, a decision to which we return.
Unlike Roquentin, Sartre never abandoned the realm of historical research. Quite often he discussed history in his philosophical writings. His plays repeatedly deal with the need to relate authentically, truthfully to history. In addition, Sartre wrote three biographiesof Charles Baudelaire, Jean Genet, and The Family Idiot, a close to three thousand page study of the life of Gustave Flaubertin which he suggested and presented an approach to studying the life of a specific person within his or her situation. Sartre also wrote abbreviated studies of contemporary history, such as his short book on Castro's Cuba. (2) Consequently, the corpus of Sartre's writings abounds with enlightening insights and ideas on how to study and write history.
Very few, if any, of Sartre's insights have been transferred to the realm of historical scholarship or of teaching history. Our survey of relevant literature revealed virtually no attempts to learn from Sartre in these fields. Someone may argue that the compartmentalization of scholarshipwhereby many, if not most, historians rarely read books by philosophersmay be an important reason for the ignoring of Sartre's insights in the fields of history and teaching history. Yet, we suspect the influence of additional reasons. Sartre's thoughts on history and his writings about the past are very often provoking. They frequently challenge deep rooted assumptions, prevailing superficial ways of thinking, and accepted norms. We suspect that they may aggravate no few researchers. Indeed, Sartre's insights often demand a rethinking of my relationship to specific events in the past, and a reassessment of my attitude to the field of history, be it defined as a story, a science, or a collective memory.
To be specific, Sartre's biographical studies and thoughts indicate that history is not only a field in which you gather facts, events, and processes so as to reach truths and bring to light knowledge of the past. Studying, reading, and teaching history is a worthy challenge which also includes a grave personal responsibility: My responsibility to the dead lives that preceded me. Lucidly accepting this responsibility, Sartre's writings indicate, can be a source of wisdom. Few historians, however, view history as transcending the orderly presenting and elucidating of facts, events, and processes. What is more, many positivists scorn the idea that any personal responsibilities or any wisdom may be linked to the historian's orderly elucidating of past developments, and objective presentation of past events and processes. They evade, deride, or disparage Sartre's insight that your existence may be enhanced through responding courageously to the challenges of history.
We have found Sartre's writings to suggest a personally enhancing commitment: A lucid and honest response to the challenges and demands of history and of the dead lives that preceded my existence is an engagement that requires courage, wisdom, and much thinking. Such a worthy response often leads to new acts of courage or to wise thoughts, thus slowly meliorating your mode of existence. In contrast, a mere gathering, presenting, and linking of facts, events, and processeswhich ignores the contradictions that may emerge in history, and the dialectics of its processeswill rarely lead to such a process of personal enhancement. Unfortunately, from our extensive research on Sartre and evil, we learned that few people choose to follow Sartre's wisdom and his demands to be courageous and thoughtfulin relating to history as in other fields that he addressed. (3)
In this essay we modestly hope to contribute to a marginal altering of this sad, and yes, sordid state of affairs by discussing Sartre's views on one area related to research in and teaching of history: our responsibility to dead lives.
Herodotus opens The Histories with the statement that his researches "are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples." (4) Livy writes in the first paragraph of The Early History of Rome that he will find satisfaction in contributing "to the labour of putting on record the story of the greatest nation in the world." (5) Both historians conveyed a tenet central to Sartre's ontology: Those who are living are responsible that the deeds and words of the dead indeed, their freedomwill not pass into oblivion. Sartre indicates that this responsibility is ontic; it is linked to the distinctiveness of a dead life.
According to Sartre's ontology, as a living person you must establish your relation to the dead lives. This relation may vary. One person may glorify certain dead lives, another may relate to all dead lives with indifference. Whatever your choice, one thing is evident: this glorifying or this indifference will always be a component and reflect your daily decisions and the life project that you have chosen. In short, there is no escape from establishing a relationship to the dead. They will always be there, confronting you directly or far off on the horizon of your being. "In its upsurge into being, the for-itself must assume a position in relation to the dead; his initial project organizes them into large anonymous masses or as distinct individualities." (7)
In the past few decades, feminists have justly argued that for centuries historians researched and taught a purposely skewed version of the past which emphasized the prevailing rule of patriarchy. In this skewed version the lives of dead women were organized in "large anonymous masses" to which you could easily relate with indifference; furthermore, many worthy women's "distinct individualities" were purposely disregarded. Consequently, throngs of remarkable women lost their "personal existence in order to be constituted with others in a collective existence." The very many enlightening historical studies describing outstanding women that have been published in the past few decades testifies to the distortion of historical research and teaching that prevailed until the rise of feminism. Such scholarship is a wise manner, adopted by those who are now alive, to assume the guardianship of many dead lives of worthy women and record it for coming generations. It is also a countering of the sexist view of society and history that reigned for millennia, and a changing of some of the basic concepts that dominated historical research.
Someone may ask: How does Sartre's emphasis on responsibility for dead lives deal with the apothegm, acknowledged by many thinkers and historians, that each generation creates its own history or, better, its own interpretation of history? What is more, some scholars have noted that history is always written by the victors. If such is true, what are my responsibilities to dead lives of the recent and remote past? And even if I accept Sartre's ontic description of my responsibility for the dead, what, if any, are its implications for historical research and for teaching history?
In his plays Altona and Dirty Hands, and in other writings, Sartre has challenged the maxim that each generation creates its own interpretation of history. (8) He also firmly rejected the apothegm that history is written by the victors. He held that historical research discloses truths so as to obtain knowledge; it is not a realm of relative judgements. We want to be clear. Sartre knows that rulers and influential individuals of each generation, like the father in Altona, will attempt to find justifications in the past for their current policies and choices. They will therefore frequently rewrite history or choose an appropriate or even false interpretation of history so as to serve their immediate interests. History based on the oppressive values of patriarchy, as it was written for millennia, is just one of many examples. Yet, Sartre points out repeatedly in Being and Nothingness, such acts of bad faith are also performed by individual consciousnesses. For instance, months or years after, say, Pierre joined the Society of Jesus, he may interpret a failed love affair as a divine sign without which he would not have decided to become a Jesuit. However, in moments of authenticity and lucidity Pierre will discern that he is merely constructing his personal history so as to explain and justify his later choices. In researching and writing history, therefore, you must always beware not to fall into bad faith and interpret prior events so as to justify and explain later choices and deeds.
Sartre also knows that very often the victors write a distorted history so as to support their actions that led to the victory. A major example is the brutal conquest of North and South America by the Europeans in the past five hundred years. For four centuries this cruel European onslaught upon the indigenous population of "The New World" was almost always described as a triumph of culture, true faith, progress, and enlightenment. Only in the past half century has this history of greed and oppression, especially in Latin America, begun to be written with the lurid details of all its evil and wickedness.This new historical writing, which unfortunately is not broadly accepted, is definitely not from the perspective of the bizarre European victors. (9)
Sartre would agree that such a distorted writing occurs even in relation to defeats. It is much easier to write a false history of a defeat if the country that suffered the defeat is still powerful enough to encourage and support such distortions. Among the many example of such sordid distortions are the writings of United States mainstream historian son the their country's involvement in the Vietnam war. Many of these" highly qualified" academics choose not to report the vast crimes against humanity that the United States military performed in the course of the war. The dead lives of the two million Vietnamese who fought against and suffered because of the wicked United States military oppression hardly concern these academics. (10) Sartre's two mentioned plays firmly hold that such deceitful approaches to history are evil; they poignantly describe the depth of such evil and its ruinous effects for all involved.
Indeed, Altona and Dirty Hands and many of Sartre's other writings resolutely indicate that an authentic responsibility toward the dead must include a responsibility for the truth about these dead liveseven if that truth is cruel, harsh, embarrassing, or painful. If you act as if each generation creates its own interpretation of history, or as if history is a story written by the victors, your regard for the truth about the lives of the dead vanishes, as does your concern for truth as guiding your daily life. Furthermore, Altona and Dirty Hands show that by such disregard you give way to banal and evil approaches. Respect for facts disappears. Cynicism very often thrives. Genuine knowledge is banished to the sidelines. Frequently, bewitching myths and loathsome fantasies based on partial truths prevail unchallenged. In short, if you deliberately distort history, an accepted pseudo-knowledge and ruinous attitudes taint all your relationships: to yourself, to other persons, and to the world.
Note that responsibility toward dead lives is part of Sartre's overall understanding of our responsibility in the world. Central to this responsibility is respect for the freedom of others and the willingness to struggle that this freedom will not be abused or destroyed. Altona and Dirty Hands clearly indicate that a person's death in no way relieves me of my responsibility to respect that person's freedom which existed on earth until his or her death, and to struggle that the memory of this freedom will not be distorted or destroyed. In Altona, Franz cannot flee from his deliberately destroying the freedom of the Russian peasant prisoners whom he tortured and slowly killed in Smolensk, even if these peasants are dead and buried for a decade and a half. Franz's guilt exists and is a crucial truth of his history and adult life. In Dirty Hands, Hugo is willing to die so that the truth about the dead Hoederer's freedom and deeds will not be erased from history. By assuming responsibility for Hoederer's death even if he himself has to die for such a decision --Hugo is also assuming responsibility for the world as a place where truth deserves to be heard and known by all and sundry. This point deserves to be emphasized. Through his courageous decision to respect the dead Hoederer, Hugo is helping to create a world where truth is not erased from history so as to serve the current interests of banal politicians and narrow adherents to the communist (or any other) party line.
Thus, our responsibility for the truth about dead lives and for the world must be central to historical research and teaching history. The truth about the oppression of women for millennia must not be camouflaged or explained away. The truth about the despicable horrors of the European conquest of the Americas must not be concealed. Disclosing these truths while teaching history helps the student assume responsibility for the world. Of course, Sartre knows that in many instances the entire truth is unavailable and hence the historian must interpolate or interpret on the basis of the limited knowledge obtainable. In the biographies that he wrote, and especially in the lengthy biography of Gustave Flaubert, he often pointed out where facts were lacking and he was forced to interpret or interpolate on the basis of the partial knowledge that exists. Sartre indicates, however, that these interpretations and interpolations must always be incorporated into the historian's attempts to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Put succinctly, a truthful presentation is the major responsibility of the historian and the teacher of history to the dead lives that he studies and describes.
You still haven't convinced me, someone may say. Isn't it true that the moment you adopt a feminist approach in relating to the dead lives of women of the past, your entire concept of historical research must change? Truths and knowledge pertaining to the role of women in history must be added, analysed, and integrated into your historical presentation. Won't these truths and knowledge alter your interpretation of history? And won't these changed interpretations be unique to the generation that rebels against the patriarchal principles that for a long period have been accepted in historical research?
Of course, the discovery of new data, the correcting of previous mistakes, and the acceptance of better principles and methods of historical research will lead to new interpretations of a historical period, or of a dead life. These changes are part of the historian's authentic pursuit of truth and knowledge. It also may happen that improved principles of historical research are adopted because of a change for the better in values and norms in academia and society at large. These principles can lead to an unearthing of previously ignored data, which can bring about, dialectically, a better appreciation of and deeper adherence to the principles. As already noted, one such change and dialectical development in reading and writing history was brought about by the adoption of the tenets of feminism. Another new interpretation revealed the horrors and evils of the five hundred year European conquest of North and South America.
Sartre clearly indicated that there is a stark difference between adopting a new interpretation of history as part of an ongoing pursuit of knowledge and truth, or as a result of my struggling for a more just way of life, and, in contrast, adopting a new interpretation because it is politically useful, or personally gratifying, or assists in my attempts to justify previous or current decisions. He believed that his biography of Gustave Flaubert enriches our knowledge of the life of the author and his period, because he related to the data with new principles and methods of research that he formulated and embraced: the initial project, the progressive-regressive method, etc. (11) He firmly held that his new interpretation of Flaubert's freedom and existence adds to our knowledge of Gustave's personality, his family, his milieu, and his period.
As an example note that Sartre's endeavors for almost two decades to learn about the life of Flaubert through strenuous historical research, helped by the adoption of new methods, are sharply distinguished from, say, the almost yearly reinterpretations of history that were published by the communist party in the former Soviet Union. These reinterpretations were blatant deceit. Neither truth nor knowledge interested the communist authors of such interpretations. What concerned them was to publish historical presentations which lent support to the then prevailing policies of the party and the Soviet regime. Such purposeful distortions of history were strictly condemned by Sartre in Dirty Hands and in other writings. (12) We should add that these acts of deceit by kowtowing Soviet historians were quite similar to Franz's attempts in Altona to mendaciously reconstruct the sad history of his time for listeners to his tapes in the thirtieth century, so as to justify his terrible crimes.
Thus, Sartre's writings suggest, a new interpretation of a dead life, or of many dead lives, should never betray factual truths. Such a betrayal is evil, it is a destruction of the freedom of past dead lives. In contrast, a new interpretation of an historical person, event, or period is important and justified when it helps us perceive the pertaining truths more lucidly and adds to our knowledge. It is also valuable when, by broadening and deepening our historical knowledge, it helps us to support and sustain a struggle for a more just world.
It should not surprise that Sartre believes that his ontology of responsibility, which includes responsibility for dead lives, can serve as the basis of an ethics. Toward the end of Being and Nothingness he presents pertinent reflections:
Sartre's reflections suggest a bond of responsibility linked to the teaching of history. Not only the persons, or nations, or other groups of people studied by the historian should be grasped as responsible for their world and way of being. The teacher of history must stress that my decision how to relate to the dead lives that preceded mine or died during my existence is a component of my being "responsible for the world" and for myself "as a way of being." It is also a decision about how human beings should, today and in the future, live together in the world. When the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, decided to not condemn his decade of adherence to Nazism he fled from acting responsibly. When he decided to never mention in his writings published after 1945 the devastating horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and the millions of dead lives that resulted from the despicable evils of the Nazi regime, Heidegger was blatantly evading his responsibility for the world. By these pernicious and cowardly decisions, when relating to his own and to his nation's history, he chose a future in which such horrors can continue to be performed. Heidegger was probably wise enough to know that whoever purposely ignores a blatant terrible evil, sanctions it and thus joins the evildoers. Thus, in relation to the Nazi Holocaust, Heidegger joined the many German evildoers by ignoring his own past evil and the evil of his compatriots. (14)
Because I am responsible for my existence, for the world, and for the future, Sartre's ontology reveals, there is no detached learning or teaching of history. I must take a stance in relation to the dead lives, the events, and the truths that historical research presents. The key word here is truths, and many of them are as simple as the horrors performed by the Nazis. A stance in relation to history, such as that adopted by Martin Heidegger, which deliberately ignores truths about the horrors inflicted upon human beings and upon other nations by my nation is evil and ruinous. Unfortunately, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly shown, such an evil stance is rather common among many United States and Western historians; it is also the prevailing approach of the mainstream press in the United States -especially the New York Times and the Washington Postwhen reporting on most recent historical events. (15)
For instance, many United States' respected historians, and journalists who write about the past few decades, ignore those policies and acts of their government in the twentieth century which brought about murderous oppression and cruel exploitation of indigenous populations in nations of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and South East Asia. Note that many tens of millions of innocent people suffered death, torture, hunger, and severe economic deprivation as a result of these evil policies that mainstream historians resolutely skip. These historians resemble the populace in Sartre's play, The Flies, who flee from their responsibility for the crimes that they know were committed. They allow the United States policy makers to disown crimes that they performed, or, worse, view them as inevitable accidents that occur in so-called developing countries. These historians are deliberately not heeding the wise words of Ortestes on such mendacity in The Flies: "A crime which its doer disowns becomes ownerless-- no man's crime; that's how you see it, isn't it? More like an accident than a crime?" (16)
Indeed, never have mainstream United States historians who support the régime suggested that what their political leaders and the armed forces they supported did to peoples of Vietnam, Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaraugua, and other countries in the twentieth century may also be called a "Shoah." The cult of historical irresponsibility and bad faith, which boasts Martin Heidegger as one of its major figures, has many fellow travelers.
We can now return to Roquentin. His abandoning of historical research includes an apt warning. Your responsibility for dead lives must never lead you to abandon your responsibility for your own existence, for the living people with whom you share the world, and for the history of the world that is occurring here and now, while you exist. Relentlessly devoting your energies to historically resurrecting a dead life, such as Roquentin did with Monsieur de Rollebon, while hardly learning from this process how to exist and act responsibly in the world is ruinous. One day in the library of Bouville Roquentin understood.
Roquentin grasped his grave mistake. His relentless devotion to presenting the details of the dead life of Monsieur de Rollebon brought about his own directionless, and often desensitized, existence. Yet, do not the fifteen years of hard work which resulted in The Family Idiot, the almost three thousand page biography that Sartre published on the life of Gustave Flaubert, reflect an abandoning of the living in favor of one dead life? Not really. Sartre continued to be deeply involved in the political realm while working on this biography, an involvement which included, among many other engagements, his struggles against the unjust murderous war that the United States conducted in Vietnam, and his support for the student rebellion in Europe during the late 1960s. What is more, Sartre's biography of Flaubert goes much beyond presenting the details of the life of the author of Madam Bovary. Utilizing new methods Sartre is attempting to answer a philosophical and historical question. An abbreviated citation from his preface indicates the significance of this question.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine whether Sartre succeeded in answering the question he posed as guiding his research --what, at this point of time, can we know about a man? although our personal assessment is very positive. We can, however, state categorically that Sartre's historical-philosophical research on Gustave Flaubert is a presentation of a dead life while assuming responsibility for the living because, to borrow a phrase from Heidegger, it opens a clearing in which truth is able to emerge. As we have shown elsewhere, some of the truths disclosed in his study of Flaubert's life have helped us, as readers, learn how to cope with evil that we have encountered, in the Middle East and elsewhere, and decided to challenge. (19) In researching and studying dead lives, it seems that Jean-Paul Sartre never made the mistakes of Antoine Roquentin.
In summary, teaching history that learns from Sartre is not only an assuming of responsibility for presenting the whole truth about dead lives. It is a showing how the worthy deeds and sayings of persons of the past can guide us to strive to live a fulfilling existence; it will also indicate that the evil deeds, banal mistakes, and bizarre failings of other dead persons, such as Gustave Flaubert, point to pitfalls that we should avoid. Furthermore, the teacher of history should stress that since the dead lives which you may study determine many components of the situation in which you find yourself, ignoring them is well nigh impossible. Or as Sartre put it in a quite similar context: "If the past does not determine our actions, at least it is such that we can not take a new decision except in terms of it." (20)
Sartre's approach has additional merits. My knowledge of and responsibility for dead lives can often contribute lucidity, a moral outlook, and wisdom to my decisions in the new situation in which I find myself. It will frequently suggest that I assume responsibility for people who are living here and now. Consider briefly those Non Government Organizations, such as Fellowship Of Reconciliation, Maryknoll, or Human Rights Watch, which are situated in the United States and, each in its own way, support the indigenous population in Central America. Their assuming responsibility for the living people in El Salvador, Nicaraugua, and other poverty stricken countries is buttressed by their stated responsibility for the many dead of these countries who were victims of United States policies of cruel murderous oppression and brutal exploitation. Their responsibility for dead lives has led to worthy deeds.
Finally, we firmly believe that teaching history that learns from Sartre on my responsibility for dead lives can be an exciting, fulfilling, and enlightening challenge. While presenting truths of the past it can illuminate my present situation and indicate a path to pursuing wisdom and a worthy life. In addition, Sartre's approach to history expresses a much needed call to all of us to assume responsibility for the many live persons-- our contemporarieswho are currently being crushed by evil and oppressive forces in the world.
(1) Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea. Trans. Robert Baldick. (Middlesex: Penguin,1965) p.13.
(2) Jean-Paul Sartre, On Cuba (New York: Ballantine Books, 1961).
(3) Haim Gordon and Rivca Gordon, Sartre and Evil: Guidelines for a Struggle. (Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1995).
(4) Herodotus, The Histories. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt. (Middlesex: Penguin, 1954) p. 41.
(5) Livy, The Early History of Rome. Trans. Aubrey de Selincourt.(Middlesex: Penguin, 1960) p.33.
(6) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel Barnes. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1966) pp.692-3.
(7) Ibid., p.693.
(8) Jean-Paul Sartre, Altona, Men Without Shadows, The Flies (Middlesex: Penguin, 1962). Jean Paul Sartre, No Exit and Three Other Plays (New York: Vintage, 1949).
(9) An intriguing example of a rewriting of history which describes many of the evils of the European conquest of Latin America is: Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Trans. Cedric Belfrage (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973).
(10) In a series of books and essays Noam Chomsky, has dealt at length with such deliberate distortions of history by United States historians. He has also described, on the basis of documents, the crimes against humanity that the leaders and soldiers of the United States performed in Vietnam and many other areas of the world. Here are three of his recent books which give many examples of such distortions of history and evils performed: Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues, (Boston: South End Press,1993); Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture, (Boston: South End Press, 1993); World Orders, Old and New (London: Pluto Press, 1994).
(11) Sartre explained his method in: Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (New York: Vintage, 1963).
(12) Such condemnations are found, for instance, in Sartre, Search for a Method, op. cit.
(13) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p.707.
(14) Many books have been published about Heidegger's Nazism. A good example with a pertinent bibliography is: Richard Wolin, (Editor) The Heidegger Controversy. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).
(15) Here are two more examples, in addition to the books mentioned in footnote 8. Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. (Boston: South End Press, 1989). Also, Deterring Democracy (London: Verso, 1991).
(16) Jean-Paul Sartre, Altona, Men Without Shadows, The Flies. op.cit.p.315.
(17) Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea. pp.142-3.
(18) Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot, Vol. I. Trans. Carol Cosman.(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) p. ix.
(19) Haim Gordon and Rivca Gordon, Sartre and Evil. op. cit. Especially chapters 12 and 13. Also: Haim Gordon and Rivca Gordon, "The Challenge of Education in Sartre's Biographies," Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. 27, No.1, January, 1996. pp.77-91.
(20) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, op. cit., p.637.