Richard Mouw: Where is Sartre when you need him?

Where has Sartre gone? And can Jon Stewart help bring him back?

Watching the Daily Show very recently made me realize how much I miss Jean-Paul Sarrte. Not that I ever knew him personally. But I miss having him around as a frequently mentioned cultural influence.

What triggered the nostalgia about Sarte was watching Jon Stewart interview Tom Folsom about Folsom’s new book about the ‘60s gangster Joe Gallo (The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld). The two of them whooped it up about how Gallo, a Mafia thug, got so caught up in Greenwich Village culture that he started reading Camus and Sartre, even writing some existentialist type poetry.

I saw the humor in that image. But it also struck me that there is something fitting in the idea of a Mafia type reading Sartre. Gallo would have been reinforced in the sense of his own radical freedom to make himself into whatever he chose to be without any “bad faith” consciousness telling him that there are moral limits to what a human being can do to other humans. Having heard the Jon Stewart interview, I plan to read Folsom’s book. And my guess is that I will find in Joe Gallo a prime example of someone who was guided by the conviction that “existence precedes essence.”

I’m not quite sure why Sartre and Camus have gone out of style. I enjoyed teaching their writings because they laid out in stark terms the issues at stake between a Christian worldview and the kind of thinking that got going at the Fall. Either we are creatures of God or we are free to make our way in the world with the sense that we are ultimately accountable only to ourselves.

In past few decades I have read my share of the stuff from the more more recent postmodern types: Derrida, Foucault, and their “lit crit” counterparts. I know that those thinkers have their quibbles about Sartre—but they still seem to me basically to be carrying on Sartre’s radical freedom project. The advantage with Sartre and Camus is that they are easier to read. To be sure, Being and Nothingness was no model of clear and concise writing. But I always got the hang of what Sartre was getting at. Not so with the more recent thinkers.

It just so happened that right after the Daily Show mention of Sartre, I came across a delightful phrase in Charles Mathewes’ important book, A Theology of Public Life. Mathewes says that the dominant picture of human autonomy today is “simultaneously existentialist and consumerist”—and then he adds this delightful phrase: “Jean-Paul Sartre at the Wal-Mart(re).”

I take that as a call for a revival of attention to Sartre. I am no Wal-Mart basher (I actually like shopping there), but there is no doubt in my mind that we have begun to see the tragedy of a culture in which the Sartrean-type worldview has unleashed a consumerism that has gotten us into big trouble. Since I’m not quite sure how to make the case in terms of Derrida’s categories, I hope that Jon Stewart and others keep talking up Sartre!

Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary