edward said on meeting an old sartre


Upon the recommendation of Mat A., I was today directed towards a memoir by Edward Said from 2001, of a meeting with Jean Paul Sartre in 1979. Sartre, by then an old man, had lost much of the anti-colonial vigour of his earlier days (evident, for instance, in his 1961 preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth), appearing decrepit and derelict in none other than Michel Foucault’s apartment.

Wrote Said of the Arab-Israeli colloquium at which he was in attendance:

[Sartre] 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.


As the turgid and unrewarding discussions wore on, I found that I was too often reminding myself that I had come to France to listen to what Sartre had to say, not to people whose opinions I already knew and didn’t find specially gripping. I therefore brazenly interrupted the discussion early in the evening and insisted that we hear from Sartre forthwith. This caused consternation in the retinue. The seminar was adjourned while urgent consultations between them were held. I found the whole thing comic and pathetic at the same time, especially since Sartre himself had no apparent part in these deliberations. At last we were summoned back to the table by the visibly irritated Pierre Victor, who announced with the portentousness of a Roman senator: ‘Demain Sartre parlera.’ And so we retired in keen anticipation of the following morning’s proceedings.

Sure enough Sartre did have something for us: a prepared text of about two typed pages that – I write entirely on the basis of a twenty-year-old memory of the moment – praised the courage of Anwar Sadat in the most banal platitudes imaginable. I cannot recall that many words were said about the Palestinians, or about territory, or about the tragic past. Certainly no reference was made to Israeli settler-colonialism, similar in many ways to French practice in Algeria. It was about as informative as a Reuters dispatch, obviously written by the egregious Victor to get Sartre, whom he seemed completely to command, off the hook. I was quite shattered to discover that this intellectual hero had succumbed in his later years to such a reactionary mentor, and that on the subject of Palestine the former warrior on behalf of the oppressed had nothing to offer beyond the most conventional, journalistic praise for an already well-celebrated Egyptian leader. For the rest of that day Sartre resumed his silence, and the proceedings continued as before. I recalled an apocryphal story in which twenty years earlier Sartre had travelled to Rome to meet Fanon (then dying of leukemia) and harangued him about the dramas of Algeria for (it was claimed) 16 non-stop hours, until Simone made him desist. Gone for ever was that Sartre.

One Response to “edward said on meeting an old sartre”

  1. 1 Fadi Ennab

    Sartre who fiercely wrote in support of the Algerians resistance against the French colonialist, has nothing to say on the Palestinians. This is what is considered to be the death of French leftist thought, if not the biggest flaw in the living French thought. There is a silence when it comes to the Palestinian dispossession by the Israeli game, when silence is displaced with words it tends to focus on terrorism – as anything but a consequence of resisting colonialism. Is it a question of tossing the baby with the bath water or saving it? I would like to save it in re-thinking Sartre from a postcolonial perspective.

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